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October 14, 2011

Marriage of Figaro

By Spear's

Fiona Shaw’s production is undoubtedly the most stunning one I have ever seen

Fiona Shaw’s production of the Marriage of Figaro is undoubtedly the most stunning one I have ever seen and I’ve seen (and been in) many. Sometimes I recoil at the idea of singing in translation but Jeremy Sams’ libretto places the text on a whole new level. Hysterical rhymes in straightforward lines made me laugh out loud, so let me eat my words.

I was also pleased that the soprano Kate Valentine, who sadly missed her opening night due to illness, was back on stage and on form. Her rich lyric voice was only one of the strong team of purposefully young singers that delighted me this evening. Illness is one of the perils of being an opera singer and missing your first night is a tragedy. Her understudy Elizabeth Llewellyn had been praised for her performance and rightly so as it is a terrifying situation to be in.

The women in this Figaro are strong and feisty; Susanna sung by Devon Guthrie really shone in her Act IV aria – a beautiful lyrical sound flowed forth giving me a glimpse of what roles she will sing in the future. Iain Patterson sang Figaro with assurance and warmth and Roland Wood’s Count was surprisingly sexy in a Colin Firth kind of a way.

A special mention though must go to Mary Bevan’s drunk Barbarina who bums a cigarette off a party guest then throws up in the bushes before her jewel of an aria and also to Lucy Schaufer’s Marcellina; her wonderful comic timing and presence on stage really set her apart. The ensembles were tight but that’s not surprising given that the conductor Paul Daniel was at the helm.

As soon as the overture begins, the stark yet timeless Almaviva household revolves continuously to reveal a scurry of servants from room to room. A ‘Gosford Park’ opening reveals a seamless transition between pantry, boot room, bedroom and kitchen, while backstage I can only imagine a frantic stage crew dissembling and reassembling yet another room as the set turns. The effect is frankly awe-inspiring, however the symbolic labyrinth of corrugated plastic in the fourth act did remind me of the stock room at Muji. Clever as it was, I needed something a little more… beautiful.

On the whole, the intent of mixed period genres, from a chamber pot to vacuum cleaner, scullery maids to video cameras, was tastefully executed. The slightly passé use of video projection irked me though, simply because this movement-packed production didn’t need such embellishment.

Fiona Shaw’s direction is fresh, clever, involving and witty and speaks to us as a modern audience. A striking moment when the Countess (Kate Valentine) brutally kisses her husband out of sheer desperation for the loss of his love really touched me and the message that two hundred years on, the problems between men and women are still the same is poignantly delivered.

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The ENO is at the peak of its creative force, managing to provide us with groundbreaking productions so I urge anyone who can to attend this sparkling, witty opera sung by the stars of the future.

Marriage of Figaro runs until November 10

by Melinda Hughes

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