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The Marriage of Figaro

by on 11 October 2022

Flower Power

The Marriage of Figaro

by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte

Glyndebourne Productions at Glyndebourne Festival Theatre until 28th October, then on tour until 24th November

Review by Eugene Broad

Susanna (Soraya Mafi), Countess Almaviva (Nardus Williams) and Figaro (Alexander Miminoshvili)

The Marriage of Figaro is a stalwart of classical opera.  Widely viewed as one of the most perfect, complete operas – Brahms wrote that “every number in Figaro is for me a miracle – it has become almost omnipresent in the opera repertoire.  As a small data point, the archives of this website hold several different reviews of several different productions of The Marriage of Figaro, done by several different production companies – a clear testament to its popularity.  As a wider data point, it regularly appears in the Top Ten lists of both performers and audiences of their favourite operas.

Given the frequency with which reviews of this opera appear (including those existent on the archives of this website), and the likelihood of readers already being familiar with the plot, the following outline is brief.

We follow the titular Figaro several years on from the events of The Barber of Seville.  Figaro is now the personal valet of the Count Almaviva, who remains married to the Countess Rosina, whose marriage was the triumph of Figaro’s wiles and keen intelligence as the eponymous Barber of Seville.  Figaro now has a paramour of his own, Susanna, who is lady’s maid to Countess Rosina.  Count Almaviva, who was always a bit of a cad, has degenerated into a lecherous womaniser.

Marcellina (Madeleine Shaw), Bartolo (Henry Waddington), Don Curzio (Stephen Mills), Count Almaviva (George Humphreys), Susanna (Soraya Mafi) and Figaro (Alexander Miminoshvili)

Having a soft spot for Susanna himself, Count Almaviva hopes to seduce Susanna even threatening the invocation of his lordly rights of ius primae noctis to sleep with her.  We follow the various antics, primarily revolving around these four plus Cherubino – a teenage boy (breeches role) who is in love with everything female but in particular the Countess Rosina.  Figaro and Count Almaviva regularly attempt to outwit each other; Figaro pre-empts ius primae noctis from being invoked, while Count Almaviva attempts to secure Figaro’s marriage to a woman old enough to be his mother, from whom Figaro has an outstanding loan.  Meanwhile, Susanna and Countess Rosina conspire to guarantee Susanna’s safety from Count Almaviva’s advances, culminating in testing the loyalties and patience of both their husbands; ultimately, their plan is the only one which makes Count Almaviva see the error of his ways.

The opera was written as a comedy, and has been interpreted in various ways.  Some productions lean more heavily into it as a dark comedy, emphasising it more as gallows humour.  Others often make it more slapstick, or tease out lighter elements of humour.  Given the high-born vs low-born dynamic, some tease out elements of class warfare – and in fact The Marriage of Figaro had many political elements removed for the libretto.  Others tease out a more feminist interpretation, with Susanna and Countess Rosina outwitting the men and making them see the errors of their ways.

The Marriage of Figaro company

Originally staged at this year’s Glyndebourne Festival and directed by Michael Grandage, Ian Rutherford has revived and directed this production for the Glyndebourne Tour 2022.  This version leans more heavily into the light humour interpretation, with less elements of class warfare or a feminist undertone.  Part of this may be due to the setting; a 1970s “flower power” feel and aesthetic flows throughout the performance – and in many ways this works very well.

Figaro (Alexander Miminoshvili) and Count Almaviva (George Humphreys)

Particular highlights came in surprising juxtapositions between Mozart’s music and this mood.  For example, at several points the cast dance in a particularly 1970s way, but these movements are perfectly fitting with the tempo and rhythm of Mozart’s music, which is anachronistic by comparison, but works remarkably well.  At one point, Figaro pelvic-thrusts aggressively and mockingly towards Count Almaviva.  At another, Count Almaviva seems to be smoking what I interpreted to be a joint or spliff, giving the drugs to his wife to help her with her “headache”.  Later on, the remains of his half-smoked funny cigarette are found by Cherubino and Barbarina.

Those flourishes give an unexpected twist and also modernise away from a more generic interpretation of The Marriage of Figaro.  At its best, that’s exactly what it does – provide an unexpected but pleasing modern flourish.  At the same time, not all aspects of the plot marry smoothly with a modernised uptake.  The power dynamic is somewhat lost, Count Almaviva doesn’t feel like someone from exceptional privilege, who is not used to people saying “no” to him.  Instead, he comes across as a bit of a sex-pest abusing “the help”.  I wondered at times if reimagining him as a charismatic cult-leader more geared up towards free love in his commune would work better within playing up this angle of the opera.  In some ways it feels like teasing us with a new interpretation of The Marriage of Figaro, only to shy away after setting the scene.

Susanna (Soraya Mafi) and Figaro (Alexander Miminoshvili)

That said, those few things that don’t quite work are easily overlooked with the excellence of everything else.  The sets (Christopher Oram) are increasingly luxuriant, opulent Moorish-styled villas.  They’re absolutely exquisite, particularly in the later Acts.  Warm, dusky lighting (Paule Constable) adds more to that Andalusian feel.  However, as an opera, really the music, vocals and performance are the most vital elements.

Countess Almaviva (Nardus Williams)

As usual, Glyndebourne delivers in spades on this front.  It has a reputation for excellence both in the summer festival and the tour, and it upholds that reputation with this production.  Stephanie Childress prodigiously handles the orchestra, ensuring they have a consolidated sound and with a clear vision.  Only in her early twenties, one has to wonder how far she and her talents will go.  Alexander Miminoshvili gives us a charismatic Figaro with an unassailable stage presence, with his warm and confident tone echoed in his warmly confident (but not cocky) portrayal of Figaro.  Soraya Mafi is a slight Susanna, but her soprano is anything but slight.  Her supple and flexible tone is clearly a crowd-pleaser with both Mafi and Miminoshvili receiving significant applause after their first arias together in Act One.

Cherubino (Ida Ränzlöv) and Countess Almaviva (Nardus Williams)

George Humphreys as Count Almaviva has an aristocratic haughtiness about him, with a convincingly humbled grovelling turnaround at the end.  One is convinced of his rage about his wife’s apparent infidelity (as hypocritical as that is from the Count), and his baritone passes from seductive, to angry and then revelatory.  But my personal favourite has to be Nardus Williams as his wife, Countess Almaviva.  Her voice carries with a mellifluous warmth and directness, like sunlight through flowing honey.  Not just this, she portrays a frustrated, but loving and forgiving wife with a touching sincerity – although it feels a little like gaslighting when she goes a little too far with Cherubino only to then argue her husband should trust her.

Bartolo (Henry Waddington) and Marcellina (Madeleine Shaw)

Ida Ränzlöv as Cherubino is particularly entertaining as a hormonal teenage boy, flirting with any girl that moved and constantly trying their luck with them all, unable to stay still … like a pent-up dynamo.  I wished for more stage time for Henry Waddington as Bartholo and Madeleine Shaw as Marcellina, who are also real vocal and performative delights whenever they came on the stage – but of course the stage time is fixed within the opera itself.

Overall, this revival of The Marriage of Figaro is a treasure – and as it’s a tour there are still multiple opportunities to see it across the UK, or to stream it from Glyndebourne’s streaming service

Eugene Broad, October 2022

Photography ©Glyndebourne Productions Ltd.  Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
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