There is an old saying that a second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience. If that is true I must be an incurable optimist as on Friday I had my second marriage in less than a week. After seeing The Marriage of Figaro by Opera North at the Grand Theatre on 1st February I went to The Holbeck to watch the Whistle Stop version.

The reason for my bigamy was that I wanted to see how they handled the transition, or, as they used to say in exams, compare and contrast. I must say that I have not enjoyed an evening more in a long time. If you have read my review of the complete opera – and if not why not – then you will have noted that I preferred the first half to the second, which I found to be a bit farcical, but that was the idea. This 45-minute interpretation was altogether a horse of a different feather. 

Peter Edge as Figaro

Being performed in the concert room above Holbeck Working Men’s Club there was no elaborate set or exquisite costumes and this gave the piece an added dimension causing you to focus on the music and performances themselves rather than the accoutrements. There was also no orchestra, the accompaniment being a sole accordionist, Mikoš Milivojević making it a sort of Opera North Unplugged. I have had the pleasure of seeing Mr Milivojević perform before, in the County Arcade last September when he accompanied Bibi Heal for a pop-up concert for Purple Tuesday, an event designed to give disabled shoppers better access in order to do their Christmas shopping. He was amazing on that day, and even better this time.

Mikoš Milivojević on accordion with Peter Edge and Alison Rose as Susanna

Because Mozart’s work had been cut by about two hours there were subplots which had to be discarded but the overall story did not suffer in the least. In fact, as one of the other strands was particularly far-fetched, I thought that the work was improved. I do realise that the abridged version lost a couple of arias, the main ones were still there and, as you would expect, sung stupendously well. 

Not only did the sparse setting enhance the experience the singers did not confine themselves to the stage but mingled amongst the audience when singing, acting and, on one occasion, recruiting an extra cast member! The clarity and strength of the singers’ voices combined with the acoustics of a small venue meant that every syllable was crystal clear. It also allowed for more natural facial expressions to be employed thus emphasising the mood, and the jokes, which I found made them funnier. 

The lack of a set led to a lack of doors to dash in and out of so limiting the farce element but it increased the comedy as large signs had to be employed to signify where the action was taking place. The female artists paraded these around the stage in much the same way as the women who display the round numbers in a boxing match, albeit fully clothed. Other cards conveyed further information which I will come to a bit later. 

Themba Mvula as Count Almaviva duets with Lizzie Karani as his wife

To save casual visitors to my site from having to plough through my previous review, the plot of the abridged story is that Susanna and Figaro are to be married and Count Almaviva has given them the best room in his house and a large bed as wedding presents. The reason for this is that the room is next door to his bedroom and he has designs on seducing Susanna. This causes her and Figaro to confide in the Countess and they hatch a plan to disgrace the Count. This involves sending him an anonymous letter asking him to meet Susanna in the garden later but instead of her turning up they were going to send a page boy, Cherubino dressed as a woman. 

James as Cherubino, being dressed as a woman!

Having recalled from last Saturday that this was going happen I wondered how it would work because there were only four singers from Opera North in attendance. In one of the announcements to the audience during the piece, Susanna informed us that the actor due to play Cherubino had missed his train to Leeds and said that a volunteer was required to take his place. At this point the singers wandered round the room and the women homed in on a young man who was persuaded to do the job. This brought howls of laughter from the audience – I suspect that the ladies chuckled because it was funny but the men laughed out of relief. The mirth increased when the new recruit, James, was quickly made over with a black curly wig and a short sarong. They had obviously chosen a guy with a large ginger beard. Brilliant. His only real purpose was to be ‘locked’ in the Countess’ closet which caused the Count to be jealous and go get a hammer to break into said closet to see who was inside. This meant that James/Cherubino had to sit on a chair with a card on his lap bearing the legend, ‘I Am Locked In A Cupboard’. Again, this brought the house down. 

As you would expect all ends well, cue tumultuous applause. 

James, having been safely returned to the audience joins in with the applause

I must say that the singing was well up to the standard expected from Opera North and a new dimension was added by its subtlety and the odd nod and wink, nuances which can be lost on a large audience in a big venue, in addition to the mingling with those present. It also helps to have a pint on the table in front of you, gladly no one had brought pork scratchings to go with their drink.

Figaro was played by Peter Edge, Susanna by Alison Rose, The Count by Themba Mvula, The Countess by Lizzie Karani and Cherubino by James from the audience, whose vocal prowess was sadly not called upon. 

Congratulations must be given to Slung Low and The Holbeck for staging this, their first opera event. It was a huge success and, as it is situated in the midsts of the community and was on a ‘pay as you feel’ basis, it meant that there were people there who would never otherwise get the opportunity to witness a live opera.

Opera North must also be praised for taking this production, which will have taken a great deal of rewriting and editing as well as singing, to the people. You are all stars. 

I would urge you to go along to one of the other venues where Whistle Stop, The Marriage of Figaro is being performed. You really will have a magical evening whether or not you know anything about the art form, entertainment is entertainment however it is presented and you will not have many chances to see artists of this calibre outside posh Opera Houses.

Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield

The Witham, Barnard Castle

The Hub, Chapel Street, Appleby-in-Westmorland tel. 01768 352902 for prices and booking details

Arnside Educational Institute

Cast, Doncaster

Viaduct Theatre, Halifax

Having said how much I enjoyed Friday night that is definitely my last marriage for the week. Even I am not that hopeful.

All photographs by Tom Arber

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