(sung in English, as The Marriage of Figaro)
Count Almaviva – Benedict Nelson
The Countess – Sarah-Jane Brandon
Susanna – Mary Bevan
Figaro – David Stout
Cherubino – Samantha Price
Marcellina – Lucy Schaufer
Doctor Bartolo – Jonathan Best
Don Basilio – Colin Judson
Don Curzio – Alun Rhys-Jenkins
Antonio – Martin Lamb
Barbarina – Ellie Laugharne
Two Girls – Ella Kirkpatrick, Lydia Marchione
Fiona Shaw (director)
Peter McKintosh (designer)
Jean Kalman (lighting)
Kim Brandstrup (movement)
Ian William Galloway (video)
Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Genevieve Ellis)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Jaime Martin (conductor)
This first revival of Fiona Shaw’s Figaro production genuinely surprised me. Last time around, it proved, at least in terms of staging, a dismal failure; this time, it is considerably improved. Although there is still too much additional ‘business’ going on, that was toned down, and more often than not, something approaching the drama created by Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte, albeit neutered by a bizarre lack of receptivity to social tensions and by Jeremy Sams’s narcissistic translation, is permitted more or less to emerge. There are still, however, problems, too many problems. Do we really need people to don horns at so many points, in order to evoke a spirit of cuckoldry? More seriously, we certainly do not need the revolve to spin around so dizzyingly; and we still have no need of a strange excursion to the kitchen. Most seriously of all, Shaw continues to misunderstand the nature of this most sophisticated of comedies. She does not merely confuse comedy and the comic; she pushes it towards vulgar farce. Barbarina as drunkard and the Count with his trousers round his ankles are unedifying and, more to the point, entirely unnecessary spectacles. And yet, for reasons I am not entirely sure I can identify, the piece as a whole worked better than it had in 2011.
Perhaps that is a reflection of the ease with which the cast seemed to work together. Mary Bevan was the undoubted star of the show, hers a world-class Susanna, her singing as beautiful and as truthful as her acting. (If only we had been able to hear her in Italian!) David Stout’s Figaro made for a winning foil, and more than that in the fourth act, in which, quite rightly, he stood out against Shaw’s prevailing silliness. Unfortunately, the Almavivas were less impressive. There was little or nothing dangerous about Benedict Nelson’s Count, too much of a buffo figure, and on occasion worryingly thin of tone. Sarah-Jane Brandon’s Countess failed to engage one’s sympathies, her acting restricted to stock gestures, and more disturbingly, her vibrato too thick and her tuning too often awry. When one finally felt her role as agent of redemption, that was the orchestra’s doing rather than hers; her two arias seemed at best observed rather than experienced. (That is not, though, to excuse the appalling behaviour of those in the audience who applauded in the middle – yes, the middle! – of ‘Dove sono’, in the pause following ‘non trapassò?’ Would that I had had a machine gun at my disposal.) Lucy Schaufer made the very most of Marcellina, despite the loss of her aria. (Am I the only one to deplore the ‘traditional’ cuts in the final act?) This was as sharply observed and as vividly communicated a portrayal as I can recall, making use of the vernacular to such a degree as to come close to convincing a translation-curmudgeon such as I. Samantha Price’s Cherubino improved noticeably as the evening progressed, her success in presenting his awkwardness as a girl laudable indeed. Special mention should go to Martin Lamb’s thoroughly convincing Antonio: quite inside the role vocally and on stage.
Jaime Martin did a good job in the pit, with the ENO Orchestra generally on fine form: a far rarer thing for orchestras in Mozart than it should be. If there were occasions, most notably in the Overture, in which Martin pushed too hard, they remained the exceptions. Ebb and flow were in general nicely judged, likewise orchestral chiaroscuro. Mozart’s larger structures, such as the second act finale, were for the most part well-paced, those breakneck, would-be Rossini speeds that have become all too fashionable in certain quarters having no place here. One would hardly have expected the profundity of the late Sir Colin Davis, with a lifetime’s experience of the work, but Martin’s achievement in mitigating the worst excesses of Shaw’s production stands worthy of proper recognition.