The Marriage of Figaro

After a week of miserable inclement weather it was a relief to have beautifully crisp sunny Saturday yesterday, capped by the prospect of a Night at the Opera. The “Spring” season of Welsh National Opera is now underway so I went to the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay to see their production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (italian name: Le Nozze di Figaro).

I’ve been going to the opera for quite a while now, and I’m definitely mildly addicted to it. It’s quite an expensive thing to get hooked on, but not compared to some things. For me, there’s a kind of excitement about opera that is almost childish. As we settled down into our seats last night, I had butterflies in my stomach and when the overture started, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck.

Here’s the overture played at a good lick by the English Baroque Soloists.

With that as your starter, who wouldn’t be looking forward to the rest of the meal?

The Marriage of Figaro, a classic Opera Buffa , was the first of three to derive from a collaboration between Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte that also produced Cosi fan Tutte and Don Giovanni. According to the programme notes, da Ponte wrote the libretto for Le Nozze di Figaro in less than six weeks, which is truly remarkable considering what a wonderfully polished work it is.

And of course there’s the music. Starting from the bustling ebullience of the briliant overture, the score is just beautiful from start to finish, the slapstick comedy punctuated by truly moving expressions of love and heartache such as the arias Porgi amor and Dove sono i bei momenti that make this piece much more than just a bit of fun. It also boasts one of the most beautiful duets in all opera, Sull’aria….Che soave zeffiretto, also known as the Letter Duet. Anyone will who has seen the memorable film Shawshank Redemption will recognize it because that’s what’s on the record Andy plays over the prison public address system after breaking into the warders’ office.

The lovely tunes wash over you one after the other in a way that’s so typical of Mozart; only Puccini had anything like his gift for wonderful melodies. With such sublime music and such a clever text, it’s very difficult to go very wrong. The one thing you have to make sure of in an Opera Buffa is to keep the pace going, much like a classic stage farce: if you dwell on it too much it’s no longer funny, just embarrassing to watch. The hectic pace only abates when the characters sing their wonderful solo arias, the surrounding comic context heightening their dramatic impact, but when these pieces are over we’re off again into the mayhem. The whole thing scurries along with never a dull moment and, by the end, you can hardly believe that it’s been the best part of four hours. The running time for last night’s performance, including one interval, was about 3 hours and 45 minutes but I never once looked at my watch.

This production is slick, beautifully sung, and keeps the momentum going in exactly the right way. The costumes are dated somewhere in the early 20th Century, with Susanna‘s French maid costume reminding me a little bit of the dress Kylie Minogue wore in Doctor Who. The sets are quite spare (although with sufficient props to hide behind, and there’s a lot of hiding behind things in this opera), with large mirrors at the side giving an extra sense of space. I was wondering how they would manage the garden setting for Act IV with this relatively simple set, but this was all done with mirrors too, this time with images of trees superimposed on them. It was quite effective, at least at first, although the mirrors kept moving around in a distracting and sometimes alarming way which spoilt it a little.

The cast was very good, especially Rosemary Joshua’s pert Susanna and Rebecca Evans as the Contessa Almaviva (both of them born in South Wales). The unflappably resourceful and charismatic Figaro was sung by David Soar, who played the part quite “straight” and let the libretto do the work. A good call, in my opinion. The Count Almaviva, Jacques Imbrailo, also sang very well and had considerable presence, but he wasn’t nearly pompous enough for my taste. Part of the joy of this opera is the subversion of roles, Figaro being so much smarter than his boss. I don’t think they quite made the most of this.

I should make a special mention of the stunningly beautiful Fiona Murphy as Cherubino. This character is a sex-starved adolescent boy, sung by a girl soprano, with definite shades of the principal boy in English pantomime. In fact, the English translation of the libretto seen in the surtitles cleverly uses the word pantomime in his/her scenes. In her Cherubino persona in the first Act, wearing a sports jacket and plus-twos, and with her hair cut short, Fiona Murphy had more than a touch of KD Lang about her. Later on Cherubino has to dress as a girl, and I found the result very interesting in all kinds of unexpected ways, not all of them comic…

Oh and I should mention that it is sung in Italian too. Call me old-fashioned but I always prefer things in the original language, especially when it’s Italian.

All in all, an excellent night out, and judging by the prolonged cheering and applause at the end, I don’t think I’m the only one who thought it so!

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6 Responses to “The Marriage of Figaro”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter,

    I too prefer opera in its original language, although perhaps for a cynical reason: it’s nice not to be distracted from the sublime music by what are in most cases trite words (even if the plot is a powerful one). I’m happy to be English!

    Da Ponte finished his long and interesting life as an emigre in New York, incidentally.

    Anton

  2. telescoper Says:

    I can usually follow Italian opera without looking at the surtitles, but the main point about singing in Italian is the vowels (a) are in different places to where they would be in English words and (b) are always pure and open, whereas English has much more complicated vowel sounds. I’ve never heard a really convincing English language version of any Italian opera because the words and music never fit properly. I think German is a bit better from this point of view, but I still think The Magic Flute, for example, is far better sung in German. Listen to the way Britten sets the text of Peter Grimes, though, and you’ll see the problem isn’t with the language itself but with the act of translation.

    Although it is verbally very witty, the Marriage of Figaro relies for a lot of its laughs on visual comedy, so it doesn’t really matter whether you can understand every single word and the music sounds so much more lyrical in Italian.

    I just read a non-too-complementary review of Jonathan Miller’s new La Boheme at ENO, where all operas are performed in English (or in this case American). I’m not planning to see that because, although I love Puccini I don’t like it in English. “Your tiny hand is frozen” doesn’t do it for me; give me “Che Gelida Manina” any time!

    I am however going to see the Magic Flute at ENO next weekend so I suppose I’ll have to psyche myself up to hearing Opera in a strange language (English).

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    I’ll just note from a review in The Guardian that Andrew Clements did not enjoy the WNO performance. He only gave it two stars out of five in his scoring. However, different people can respond very differently to the same performance, and your opinion may be closer.

    However, I was present for a performance rated at 2/5 in a subsequent Guardian review two weeks ago. And I wouldn’t disagree with that particular review (in that case it was a piano recital).

    As for the language of operas, another reason for preferring the original language is that it is usually easier to understand an opera in a language you do not speak: there is almost always a translation in surtitles these days. The trouble with operas in English without surtitles is that it is sometimes not possible to understand all the words when they sung, unless the diction is really clear.

  4. telescoper Says:

    I’ve just read the Guardian review you mentioned. It’s not the first time I’ve completely disagreed with Andrew Clements, who is perhaps the most relentlessly miserable opera-goer imaginable. We agreed about the quality of the two female leads, at least.

    I didn’t think it was the deepest production, but it was light and airy and very entertaining. Obviously that’s not the thing for Guardian critics.

  5. telescoper Says:

    I just found another review, in The Times online which is a bit better. The critic there, Richard Morrison, liked the understated Figaro (as I did) but also mentions the strange moving scenery in Act IV.

    I think both of them miss the point about the 1930s staging (although I might have put it more like 1920). Clements in the Guardian mentions the film Gosford Park and Morrison in the Times states that the 20th Century setting makes the droit de seigneur of the Count preposterous. If you have seen Gosford Park, however, you will know that the plot is all about the Lord of the estate claiming his rights over the servants. I think setting it at this time, especially with its echoes of Gosford Park, is quite successful. There’s also a bit of PG Wodehouse in the setting too, especially when the Count bounces in carrying a tennis racket, which I thought worked well.

  6. Bryn Jones Says:

    I rather like reading reviews for events I have attended to see whether I agree with the comments. Unfortunately, the coverage of concerts by newspapers can be patchy: only one of my last three concerts have had reviews. Sometimes the reviewer does get it wrong (though sadly not for one charmless concert two weeks ago).

    Opera fans can get very critical at times. I have heard of reports of booing of singers in some opera performances, though have never experienced it myself; that behaviour is something that would never happen in the concert hall, however bad the performance. Hmmm, perhaps I should set a new precedent …

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