Beaumarchais’ original play, on which Mozart and Da Ponte created the opera of The Marriage of Figaro, was considered scandalous in its day given its highly critical questioning of French society at a turbulent period just prior to the French Revolution. In the same vein, Da Ponte’s libretto highlights smart servants making fools of their masters, with Figaro openly refuting the Count’s ‘droit de seigneur’. This conceit is pivotal to the story of the opera, explaining why Figaro is in such a hurry to marry Susanna and, at the same time, dupe his lecherous master in the process.
For this new Opera Queensland production, Patrick Nolan, OQ’s Artistic Director, has sought to create a contemporary production around the similarities of the 18th and 21st-century worlds, which has some resonance and in part worked well. The set design by Marg Howell gave us a world in decay, one seemingly about to explode. A huge statue on its side with its head cut off, the head prominent downstage throughout the evening, echoed recent news images. The country house of the Count and Countess gave us crumbling walls, doors ripped off, chandeliers lying on the floor and general degradation. This disturbing mess felt like a physical warzone.
Howell’s costumes were a mixed bag, deliberately so, with modern and period pieces jumbled together. Some of this worked, including the contemporary clothing of Susanna, Figaro, chorus and wedding guests. Some was frankly ridiculous. The dissolute Count wore a scruffy dressing-gown, slippers and dirty singlet for much of the opera, as he padded around mostly drunk and out of control, making it difficult for him to have the authority his music demands. The Countess’s two major outfits were bizarre and, unfortunately, completely unflattering for the singer. They appeared to be a strange choice for a countess addicted to retail therapy, with cupboards full of designer clothes, which may have supposed better taste. It also made it difficult to take seriously the two simple, delicate love songs of the usually elegant, refined Countess, representing such a contrast to her debauched husband.
Fortunately, Mozart’s music came to the rescue and rose admirably to the production’s challenges. The cast was impressive overall, a mix of seasoned performers and some young fresh faces. As Susanna and Figaro, Sofia Troncoso and Jeremy Kleeman made a handsome couple, energetic and completely believable. The beautiful soprano of Troncoso is solid throughout the range; a perfect voice for this role. Her touching aria, Deh vieni, non tardar, was expertly sung, as were her many trios and ensembles. Kleeman’s Figaro was boisterous and witty, with his strong, focused baritone and excellent diction. The questioning of the Count, Se vuol ballare, signor Contino, was first-rate, as was his aria to Cherubino, the famous Non più andrai, sending him off to war.
In the pants role of Cherubino, young mezzo-soprano Xenia Puskarz Thomas, was a delight and as close to being an infatuated young boy as you could get. Both her arias, Non so più cosa son and Voi che sapete were impeccably sung, her rich, creamy mezzo and perfect Italian a pleasure to hear. Her performance was one of the major highlights of the evening.
José Carbó gave us a powerfully sung Count. His lecherous, chauvinistic character was near perfectly realised, rising to the occasion in his marvellous duet with Susanna, Crudel! perché finora followed by the wonderful aria Vedrò mentr’io sospiro, delivered with great aplomb. He led the glorious finale of Act 2, with a passionate rendition of Esci omai, garzon malnato, while his final request for forgiveness in Act 4, Contessa perdona, was suitably poignant. As the Countess, Eva Kong was less successful, her ability to deliver Porgi Amor and Dove Sono as intense and heartfelt arias hindered by the demands of the production.
Bradley Daley’s Don Basilio (the production seemed to combine his role with that of Don Curzio) was a sleezy gossip, wearing gold chains and a loud 1960’s suit. He had great fun with it, his strong tenor a luxury in what is usually a comprimario role. Likewise, Jud Arthur’s resonant bass made the most of Dr Bartolo, the buffo-bass delivering with gusto La vendetta. Hayley Sugars as Marcellina had some lovely moments, particularly at her wedding, while Irena Lysiuk made a charming soubrette as Barbarina, and Samuel Piper was her suitably gruff gardener-father, Antonio.
Maestro Dane Lam managed his orchestral forces strongly, starting with a fine presto overture that kept the action moving, while the Queensland Symphony Orchestra played extremely well. Lam is to be congratulated for taking on the dual role of conductor and continuo fortepiano player for the recitative, making for a demanding evening in the pit.
The complexities of the plot make this a tricky opera to stage. The work flowed along quite well, despite a tendency for chorus members to wander through scenes often without purpose, and too much extraneous business that detracted from the singers. Act 4 is particularly challenging to stage logistically, in a garden at night. Here the lighting was bright throughout, making a mockery of singers apparently discovering each other in the dark. It required a much firmer hand directorially and technically. Some strange additions, such as chorus members wearing huge paper-mâché heads in the background, while Figaro sang Tutto è disposto, were unfathomable.
Ultimately, what this evening showed is that less is more. Less gratuitous production, allowing Mozart’s music to simply speak for itself. Stillness in the many soliloquy arias, and an ability to let Da Ponte just tell the story, would have assisted this updated version to have been more successful.
Opera Queensland’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro plays at the Playhouse, QPAC until 31 July