It’s often vaunted as Mozart’s most revolutionary opera, making bold swipes at the dastardliness of the class structure in 18th century Europe, but these days The Marriage of Figaro comes across like a simple upstairs-downstairs farce.
Fiona Shaw’s new production for ENO (her third go at directing opera) is a bit of a curate’s egg. There is plenty of invention and humour, as well as detailed performances all round, but Shaw seems to constantly prod the audience by cramming in supposedly poignant objects and projecting decorative bits and bobs onto the space above the action, presumably to remind us that she’s really ‘doing something’. There may be a wealth of meaning in all these intrusions, but it detracts and distracts from the clarity of the drama.
Paper-thin walls make up the constantly revolving set, underlining a lack of privacy and embodying the dizzying nature of the plot, while also ensuring perpetual motion of this knock-about romp, particularly in the opening scenes. There was a vague atmosphere of 18th Century-ness in the look of things, but with an occasional Hoover or Cine-camera thrown in, to give a welcome un-fussy slant to the period setting.
It takes the cast a good few scenes to warm up properly, but once they’re off the performances are uniformly brilliant, each singer giving light and shade to their roles. Devon Guthrie plays the coquettish Susanna, simmering under Iain Paterson’s frustrated Figaro. Roland Wood manages to play the Count without lurching into panto villainy, while Kathryn Rudge glories as the ever nubile cross-dressing Cherubino.
But the show-stopper, and the story of the evening, is undoubtedly Elizabeth Llewellyn as the Countess. Kate Valentine was due to play that role but was stricken with a sickness and had to stay abed. Usually last-minute replacement singers (especially in major roles) are automatically adored by audience - if only for having the brass neck to get up and do it - but Elizabeth Llewellyn sings with heart, guts and intelligence and would easily have stolen the show if this wasn’t such a unified ensemble performance.
The translation by Jeremy Sams is sparkly clever, retaining the grit and bawdiness of Da Ponte’s original, and matching the fizz and panache of conductor Paul Daniel, who insists on real contours in Mozart’s evergreen score.