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The Marriage of Figaro

by on 15 March 2020

Ding dong!

The Marriage of Figaro

by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, after Beaumarchais

ENO and Oper Wuppertal at the London Coliseum until 18 April

A review by Matthew Grierson

Through the four doors of Johannes Schütz’s set – a white Ikea bookcase denuded of its shelves – tonight’s cast appear and disappear like the little figures in an antique weather house as the overture to Mozart’s comic opera is played. Their to-ings and fro-ings and occasionally frozen poses, photos from the weddings that are yet to take place, also forecast the romantic runaround gleefully staged in this uplifting production.

This Marriage plays with the idea of the secrets the characters are keeping from one another and plots they are hatching: the doors sometimes keep the rest of the world at bay while they have their confidential conferences, while at other times the action taking place in front of them is for real and the doors open on to the imagination or unconscious, like eerily lit erotic tableaux from a Soho of yesteryear.

ENO The Marriage of Figaro 2020, Božidar Smiljanić, Louise Alder, © Marc Brenner-2392

The farce is well choreographed in these two dimensions, but director Joe Hill-Gibbins is keen to add a third: hoisted into the gods, the bookcase is socially as well as physically elevated to become the apartments of the Count and Countess, allowing some nicely coordinated interplay between the nobles above and servants below, who are often oblivious to one another. This increases the tension when the approach of someone below is visible to the audience but not those having a liaison above, enhanced by some beautiful comic business when horny adolescent Cherubino has to throw himself onto a crashmat hastily positioned under him by the servants.

If one were somehow to see only the first half of the performance, it would in fact be quite easy to imagine the young page to be the main character, such is his part in the action and Hanna Hipp’s charisma in the part, her look putting me in mind of Tilda Swinton’s more androgynous performances. Whether strutting in full R ’n’ B style to the lovesong the boy has written or being dressed and redressed by the maids like a doll, Hipp manages to be both impish and ingenuous at the same time.

ENO The Marriage of Figaro 2020, Rowan Pierce, Hanna Hipp, © Marc Brenner-2309

Come the interval at the end of Act II, the raising and lowering of the set is starting to feel unnecessary – but by the time of the wedding night as Act IV begins it is quite literally backgrounded. It’s hardly a safe space, but its distant whiteness – lit up throughout in moods variously lively and sordid by Matthew Richardson – means there is a downstage darkness where all the cons and confusions can play themselves out.

In these bed tricks and badinage, Mozart & co. are clearly having a lot of fun with the conventions of comic drama. ‘A play should end in jollity in theatrical tradition’ is one refrain, for instance, while the sudden disclosure of Figaro’s origins – gamely played by Božidar Smiljanić – is a self-aware strategy to pluck the plot from a pickle, akin to the wild revelations and reversals of Henry Fielding a generation before the composer.

ENO The Marriage of Figaro 2020, Božidar Smiljanić, Susan Bickley, © Marc Brenner-2624

That knowingness is embraced, but never overdone, in this production. Susanna and Figaro respectively invoke the faults of men and women in direct addresses to the audience, as if to say ‘Am I right?’, while Jeremy Sams’ English version of the libretto has the quality of some of W. S. Gilbert’s finest, as well as a nice nod to Monty Python (no-one expected that).

Figaro also sings that his master may be dancing but that he will call the tune, and Hill-Gibbins picks up this cue very obviously by having the manservant mimic maestro Kevin John Edusei to conduct a chorus of fellow below-stairs staff in singing mock praises of the Count. The way the ne’er-do-well nob is manoeuvred into affirming his own decency and disclaiming his droit de seigneur seems especially timely, and plays against the protestations Susanna is forced to make of renouncing her own rights when under pressure from the Count and music instructor Basilio (played with an incongruous estuary accent by Colin Judson).

But if Figaro believes he is conducting matters and Basilio is looking to steer his pupil Susanna into a duet with her master, they only think they are in charge of proceedings: for it is the sanguine bride-to-be who remains the most clear-sighted protagonist, even when she cannot always exercise direct control. Louise Alder’s portrayal mingles wit and weariness, as is evident when she ends an occasional line with a word almost spat in indignation rather than sung. And she is a joy to watch, whether she’s slipping from the Count’s grasp or delivering a beautiful aria to Figaro when he suspects her fidelity. She proves the critical role of female agency in ‘rounding the play off nicely’.

ENO The Marriage of Figaro 2020, Louise Alder, © Marc Brenner-21

She is complemented in this by Elizabeth Watts as the Countess, whose heartfelt singing expresses her continued love for her unfaithful spouse. Hanging in the set above him, she is literally floored to hear him conduct one of his assignations below and, even when she is silent in the closing scene, she conveys dignity and distress in equal measure in her realisation of how irredeemable is his behaviour.

Wily though he is, Figaro always remains a beat or two behind the two women when it comes to subterfuge, instead breezing his way through his deceptions of the Count on an ad hoc basis. In Smiljanić’s characterisation, he’s an ebullient comic presence, and his wedding attire, which wouldn’t be out of place in Vegas, matches his showy good humour. In his final reconciliation with Susanna – his surrender to her, in fact – it is this charm that ensures her understanding of him is moderated by forgiveness.

ENO The Marriage of Figaro 2020, Božidar Smiljanić, Louise Alder, © Marc Brenner-171

It’s not only Figaro and Susanna among the servants who claim their share of the action: Clive Bayley’s interruption as gardener Antonio forces both Count and Figaro to improvise him into their plans, while pity his daughter Barbarina (Rowan Pierce), who not only has to cope with her father’s drunkeness but also endeavours to make an honest man of Cherubino. Good luck to her. And of course there are the opportunist Marcellina and Dr Bartolo (Susan Bickley and Andrew Shore), at first dead set on prosecuting Figaro, but then suddenly on his side when they discover their … true relationship to him.

As Count Almaviva, meanwhile, Johnathan McCullough has to tread a careful path, not a villain so much as an exponent of unenlightened self-interest. While it’s uncomfortable to watch his hands roving over Susanna or see him standing above Barbarina, trying to indulge the power he might once have exercised, there’s equally a sense in which he is a man out of time, isolated as he is in our final image of him: shut out of proceedings as the happy couples race back to the house and slam the doors behind them. It’s a fitting moment, albeit one that is at risk of being lost in the speed with which the curtain falls.

ENO The Marriage of Figaro 2020, Johnathan McCullough, © Marc Brenner-1130

In a world where old orders are crumbling and new certainties are hard to lay hands on, those who succeed – as this production does – seize their moment joyfully.

Matthew Grierson
March 2020

Photos © Marc Brenner

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