The Marriage of Figaro (Opera North) - 'scintillating production'
Musically and dramatically satisfying Mozart from a company on top form
It was edifying to catch up with Jo Davies's scintillating production of Mozart's da Ponte opera at its fifth rather than first performance, press and dignitaries having long departed along with most (though sadly not quite all) of the stalls snobs. It left the company free to entertain the eyes, ears, faulty hearing aids and perfectly-functioning mobile phones of a (mostly) healthy chunk of West Yorkshire.
Set amid designs by Leslie Travers that suggest an abandoned opera house, with vestigial props and battered stage elements that in better days might have furnished a production of, well, The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart's sublime comic opera is treated to a musical interpretation of the highest calibre.
Alexander Shelley conducts as rewardingly paced and balanced a Figaro as I've heard in a long time. I might take issue with the slightly over-florid fortepiano continuo, but that's just carping. He adopts an entirely appropriate idiomatic style and supports his singers beautifully, while nurturing dramatic momentum in ways that some other Mozart conductors, even distinguished ones, tend to overlook.
It helps that the Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North are as polished and responsive as they are, and that most of the soloists are well cast. The title role fits Richard Burkhard like a glove: he communes with the audience, subverts his superiors and flashes the cheekiest of grins; more importantly he sings Jeremy Sams's familiar, felicitous translation with immaculate phrasing and diction.
Would that the same could be said of all his colleagues. Silvia Moi (Susanna) and Gaynor Keeble (Marcellina) are fine, but moments of imperfect delivery deprive their characters of a vital edge, particularly since there are no surtitles. The best-articulated performance of all, in fact, comes from Antonio the gardener, aka Opera North chorister Jeremy Peaker, who shows the rest how it's done.
"no tricks, just common sense and a light touch"
Ana Maria Labin is suitably noble as the Countess Almaviva whose husband has a snaky eye on his wife's soon-to-be-married servant Susanna (pre-nups in the 18th century had a whole other meaning), but there's a keening quality to her timbre, especially in "Dove sono", that curdles the cream just a little. Quirlin de Lang as her caddish Count sings with forthright clarity while apparently channelling Leslie Phillips.
I liked almost everything about Jo Davies's direction – no tricks, just common sense and a light touch – especially in the troublesome fourth act, which has rarely felt better integrated than here (although I could have done without the smoking censer wielded by Nicholas Watts's priestly Don Curzio: an olfactory mood-breaker too far when its liturgical aroma invades the auditorium). Helen Sherman's gangling, beautifully sung Cherubino is a proper hormone-fest and Dean Robinson, Opera North's workhorse this season with Gianni Schicchi on his plate as well six performances of Fig, satisfyingly lugubrious as Doctor Bartolo.
It's always worth treading carefully where Le nozze di Figaro is concerned: pick a dud production and the running time can seem to rival Götterdämmerung. The three hours of this Opera North offering fly by like a Valkyrie ride.