At my time of life the only invitations I receive to social events are retirement parties, birthday bashes when someone has hit a year with a zero at the end and an unfeasibly large first digit, or funerals. Imagine my delight, therefore, when I was asked if I would like to go to a wedding. I could hardly wait for the mushroom vol-au-vents, small cubes of cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks, and cheap fizz.
When I read the email a little further I realised that I had been asked to review the Marriage of Figaro, the opera by Mozart and staged by Opera North. Oh well, a wedding’s a wedding, right? Not quite. This one makes any of those on Eastenders and Coronation Street look totally uneventful.
The action all takes place on Figaro’s wedding day and begins with his measuring their room to see if the bed, which Count Almaviva has given them as a wedding present, will fit. His fiancée, Susanna, tells him that the only reason for the gift of both the bed and the room itself, is to keep her close at hand as he plans to seduce her. There had been a lately abolished ‘feudal right’ which allowed a lord to sleep with a servant girl on her wedding night. Unsurprisingly Figaro is a bit miffed about this and decides to outsmart the Count so he decides to devise a plan enlisting the assistance of Susanna, the equally cheesed-off Countess, and page boy Cherubino who is, like the Count, a bit of a womaniser and whose targets include the Countess herself.
The execution of this plan involves all kinds of devices which, in the first half erred on the use of comedy but in the second descended into farce, which I have to say is something I don’t ‘get’. Even I must admit that everything was done brilliantly and, although I didn’t find it particularly laughter inducing, the same didn’t apply to a large number of audience members who were exercising their chuckle muscles fairly vigorously throughout the night.
There was a lot of hiding in rooms, closets and behind furniture, disguises, mistaken identities and a secondary plot involving Doctor Bartolo, the Countess’ former guardian and Marcellina, his housekeeper who has a signed loan agreement between her and Figaro saying that he has to repay the money or marry her in default. This provides a further twist in the tale. The other main characters are Don Basilio, the music teacher, Antonio, the gardener and his daughter Barbarina who has taken a shine to Cherubino.
Although Jo Davies’ production updates the period of the play to pre-revolutionary Russia, the gardener, who, along with Cherubino and Don Basilio, was a comedy figure, has a Yorkshire accent and the colourful turn of phrase with which natives of God’s Own County are associated. Having seen a male figure leave the Countess’ room and run across the lawn, when asked where the mystery man went he sang that he didn’t know ‘he just buggered off!’ Yes, the opera is sung in English which makes it a lot easier to follow than had it been titled.
Cherubino is a male role actually played by a woman which makes it very strange when he/she has to pretend that they are a woman. I hope that you followed that.
The set, designed by Leslie Travers, was an imaginative affair, the opera beginning with the rear of the scenery facing the audience and characters entering and exiting doors whilst the overture was being played. The scene shifting from then on was made part of the action and seemed to be synchronised with the score.
Gabrielle Dalton was responsible for the costumes which were spectacular. I thought that the men’s outfits were especially good with the count being immaculate in frock suits whilst the gardener was in cord trousers and tweed jacket which looked as though they had seen plenty of horticultural action.
Choreographer, Kay Shepherd utilised the set, especially the staircase to great effect. The scenes with the countrywomen were especially well done, the first entailed the unfurling of a banner from the steps with one of them standing in front of a crucial letter. The second featured Cherubino, now dressed as a woman, hiding amongst the countrywomen and comically out of step with the others.
The magnificent orchestra was conducted by Antony Hermus and led by Katie Stillman. They were totally in balance with the singing and the overall effect was superb.
The chorus of Opera North played the bridesmaids and other peripheral roles, every one of them as good as we have come to expect.
Philip Rhodes, baritone – Figaro
Fflur Wyn, soprano – Susanna
Quirijn de Lang, baritone – Count Almaviva
Máire Flavin, soprano – Countess Almaviva
Heather Lowe, mezzo-soprano – Cherubino
Jonathan Best, bass – Doctor Bartolo
Gaynor Keeble, mezzo-soprano – Marcellina
Joseph Shovelton, tenor – Don Basilio
Jeremy Peaker, baritone – The Gardner
Alexandra Oomens, soprano – His Daughter.
Warren Gillespie, tenor – Don Curzio
Although, as I have said, farce is not my thing, I was so impressed by the way in which this opera was sung and staged that I had a wonderful evening anyway. Who couldn’t enjoy the music of Mozart and the singing of Opera North.
The Marriage of Figaro will be on tour after their stint at the Leeds Grand Theatre playing at Theatre Royal, Newcastle from 3rd March, The Lowry, Salford Quays from 10th March and Theatre Royal, Nottingham from 17th March.
As you will have realised I am not a musician and so my article is of the Classic FM standard, should you require the hard core Radio Three level then please click on this link to the review by my erstwhile colleague at Leeds Living, Charles Eager, who will give you what you want.
On the other hand, should you perhaps fancy a taster without committing yourself to the full three-hour performance then Opera North are performing some 45 minute Whistle-Stop versions featuring four opera singers accompanied by an accordion player in spaces not normally associated with their art form.
The venues are:
Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield https://www.thelbt.org/shows/whistle-stop-opera-the-marriage-of-figaro/
The Witham, Barnard Castle https://thewitham.org.uk/event/whistlestop-opera-marriage-of-figaro/
The Hub, Chapel Street, Appleby-in-Westmorland https://highlightsnorth.co.uk/event/the-marriage-of-figaro-by-opera-north/ tel. 01768 352902 for prices and booking details
Arnside Educational Institute https://www.arnsideeducationalinstitute.org/whats
Viaduct Theatre, Halifax https://theviaducttheatre.co.uk/whistle-stop-opera-the-marriage-of-figaro/
Please check with the venues for dates, times and booking details.
Now, where are the chicken drumsticks?
All photographs provided by Opera North