Review: Le nozze di Figaro (Nevill Holt Opera)
A brand new opera house opens its doors with Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro
Leicestershire gets ahead of the curve with its brand new opera house, a charming mid-size space embedded in the ancient stables of a spectacular country pile. Nevill Holt has been presenting opera for ten years already; now it has an auditorium to match its ambitions. New wood harmonises with the crumble of old bricks and mortar to create a delightful eyeful and an excellent acoustic. The only pity is that Nevill Holt Opera is yet another festival that shunts directly against all the other summer fizzfests and misses the chance to be different. What's wrong with August? Not everyone ups sticks to Marbella.
The inaugural offering, Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, is an obvious choice for the occasion. It's funny, modestly proportioned and a solid gold masterpiece. Moreover, it's a brilliant showcase for NHO's house band, the redoubtable Royal Northern Sinfonia, who played like angels for the company's artistic director Nicholas Chalmers. Time and again I caught myself looking away from the stage in order to luxuriate in felicitous tempos and joyous ensemble playing.
Not that Joe Austin's period production is a let-down. Not after a dodgy first act, anyway. He begins with a perplexing dumbshow to distract us ahead of the action (Me: 'Who are these people? What are they doing? I think, they're servants - or are they? Not sure yet. Oh, was that the overture?') before introducing Beaumarchais' dramatis personae without bothering to define their characteristics. That may have been a conscious decision - after all, it becomes plain in the end - but it felt lazy and lent the act an ad hoc quality. So did the confusion with which people standing both outside and inside a room shared the same floor space but were never together until they'd walked round the set and come through a door.
Matters improved once we reached the bedchamber of Sky Ingram's dignified Countess. Both Austin's direction and Simon Kenny's whipped-cream designs fell into place for Mozart's ineffable second act as Anna Harvey's grungy Cherubino fled from James Newby's grouchy Count Almaviva. There was, though, chaos in the key department when a locked cupboard showed it could open perfectly happily without one.
Austin has staged the later acts with such clarity and zip that a 20-minute surtitle glitch was neither here nor there. I enjoyed his emphasis on youth: it humanised the characters and made them plausibly sexy without being pervy. Thus when the Countess was ogled by horny young Cherubino she and Susanna could flirt age-appropriately back at him, and the Count's roving eye felt less sinister and more like something he might eventually outgrow.
Everyone's singing was a delight but the standout moment occurred in Act Three: a divine rendition of "Sull'aria'' by Ingram and Aoife Miskelly's charismatic Susanna. The fast-rising Newby was on fine form as Almaviva, Rowan Pierce made a strong if fleeting impression as Barbarina and the American baritone Lawson Anderson brought Figaro vividly to life with his dynamic presence and a sugared vocal quality. Among the opera's ‘seniors' (for want of a better word) the double act of Bartolo and Marcellina was taken with Rolls-Royce distinction by Stephen Richardson and the legendary Joan Rodgers. Luxury casting indeed.