OPERA - MOZART - FIGARO
The legend that The
Marriage of Figaro provoked the French Revolution would never have
arisen had 1780s productions been as aimless as Opera Australia’s
latest offering. Director Neil Armfield has confined the antagonism
between aristocrat and servant to individuals. He glimpses “the more
than usual force” that Count Almaviva applies not only to his wife. The
count has all the discreet charms of his class, including savagery. His
life may be idle but his threats are not.
splatters the first Act with music hall ribaldry instead of taking his
cue from the wit that informs both da Ponte’s text and Mozart’s
score. A few closing seconds of anguish are thus the more affecting, but
they also highlight what has been missing: intelligent feelings.
knock-about tone misleads the cast, many of which, especially the
principals, are in need of help. Each had moments which led one to hope
that they have been warming up. These passages are rarely more than
Black as Count Almaviva seeks to seduce by exposing his chest. Once this
flashing fails, he kicks his bare legs in the air like Esther Williams.
Throughout, he smiles like Peter Costello. These devices do nothing to
direct attention from the ordinariness of his baritone, which runs out
of puff in his aria of self-reflection. At the final curtain, we know
that the count will soon be philandering again but he must convince us
that he has some nobility if we are to believe that the countess should
have been given such heavenly music to express her forgiveness. That he
approaches this state is his triumph over the production.
Leanne Kenneally as the Countess looks the part of the neglected wife. Her “Piorgi amor” should be breathtaking to hear, not to sing.
Although Douglas McNicol, in the title role, wisely paces his anger against being in service, he does not reach the extremes that even Figaro’s limited character experiences when he fears betrayal. His voice is firmer the lower it goes.
intended, the maid Susanna, deserves to be the smartest person on stage.
Clare Gormley makes things happen but with an insouciance appropriate to
the page Cherubino. Her voice is bright, her articulation precise, her
movements vivacious, and all are sustained across three hours.
Speight’s Cherubino opens delightfully, with fluid lines and lovely
intonation. Her great moment in Act II, ‘Voi che sapete’,
is thus more of a disappointment with its uncertain ornamentation. Her
vocal difficulty is not alleviated by stage movements which accentuate
that she is a girl in pants. The female singer’s pretence at a martial
stride is indistinguishable from her boy character’s mince as a
the older woman, Marcellina, the comic timing of Margaret Haggart is
pointed in recitative but in her aria she soars and plummets between
splendour and inaudibility.
So accustomed are OA audiences to Conal
Coad’s talents that we are in danger of taking them for granted, or of
supposing that comedy must be easier than tragedy. The truth is that the
company could simplify its auditions by putting this question to their
would-be principals: if you cannot match Mr Coad’s vocal and dramatic
abilities, are you sure that you have chosen the right career?
As Dr Bartolo, Coad integrates singing with
gestures so that the ludicrous is at once funny and touching. His bass
touches bottom as surely as it does our hearts.
The Basilio (and Curzio) by Geoffrey Harris
add distinction to the minor characters just as Roger Howell’s drunken
gardener Antonio supplies more than can be expected from a vignette.
Simone Young’s conducting keeps up the
desired pace, bringing forth instrumental detail. Indeed, the opera’s
shifts between sparkle and menace are clearer in the pit than on stage.
The playing for the three successive ensembles that end Act II allows
Mozart to abduct us from tedium.
The brown-paper look of the sets and the drab
of the costumes by Dale Ferguson are reminders that late
Eighteenth-century Spanish aristocrats were on their uppers.
Lighting the night scene in the garden has to
balance the illumination that the
audience needs to follow the plot against the gloom required to make the
run of mistaken identities credible. Why does Barbarina need a candle to
search for her pin when Rory Dempster has lit the stage so brightly?
This excess of light would be a problem had
Neil Armfield realized the comic possibilities in the culmination to
this “crazy day”.