According to my opera-going friend Alan, “The Marriage of Figaro” is the greatest opera ever written. I’m usually a bit frustrated by sweeping pronouncements like this, but with “Figaro”, I can kind of see where he’s coming from. It’s one of those rare works of art of such subtlety and nuance as to be almost limitless in possibility. Like “Twelfth Night”, you can play it for laughs or for tears, with detachment or love, with tradition or with a radical overhaul. Or you can make a bit of a muddle-up of all of those and hope it comes off. The current ENO production, which I saw last night, takes this approach and, as (in my opinion) usually happens with muddled productions, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
Judging from this example, Fiona Shaw’s biggest strength as an opera director is that she directs the singers very well as actors. She has got some excellent acting out of them, with detailed, naturalistic, nuanced performances all round. I am highly in favour of this approach! The majority of opera singers can act, after all (although some are certainly far better than others, and oddly some of the world’s most famous ones can’t), and it pays to focus on the acting and interpretation of the characters. Unfortunately, the rest of the production, in the sense of the underlying concepts and directorial ideas, didn’t really work. It was doubly a pity given the strength of the individual performers and the scintillating playing from the orchestra. They were all so good, and I wanted desperately to love this production, but although none of the weaknesses were appalling, opera-ruining things, they were bad enough to irritate and confuse me, and they did detract from the production’s strengths.
I don’t mind modern dress productions, or odd-dress productions; I don’t mind contemporary relevance and contemporary references; I don’t mind things being different, non-traditional, unconventional, quirky, I don’t mind over-riding directorial concepts, no matter how weird or confrontational; all of these things are fine provided they work. When they work – as with the ENO “Parsifal” I saw in the winter – they justify their existence a hundred-fold. But when they don’t work, they just detract. One of the best ways to make sure they don’t work is to be hesitant about them, and another is to be too busy with them. This “Figaro” manages to be both.
The costumes start in period, but occasionally vary towards modern dress – only half-heartedly, with no discernible rationale and no coherence. Props likewise – mostly these were in period, but the odd modern item (not all from the same period of “modern”) was thrown in, for no apparent reason. New media, back projections and so forth can be immensely effective when they are used with confidence and panache; but not if, as here, they seem to have been shoved in just for fun or to cover patches when the director wasn’t sure what to do. And constant frantic busyness onstage is usually a sign that the director doesn’t really have faith in the work itself or in whether what they and their cast are doing with it is interesting enough on its own. This was a very busy stage; literally. Not only did the cast have to scurry from room to room endlessly, but the set itself scurried, going round and round almost ceaselessly on the revolve.
However, despite the twirling stage and the oddly fudged stabs at doing a bit of Regietheater (I think that’s the right word but I may have spelled it wrong!), this was a very enjoyable evening. The characters came over as real people living real lives, not artificial people in a staged production. Their relationships and their responses to one another were real and credible, their movements were natural, recitatives were shaped subtly to sound like fresh thoughts and conversations and not like “I have to say this just-so and on-the-beat”. Figaro wasn’t the usual uncomplicated jolly chap but an intelligent, angry, politically-awakened man, powerfully aware that in everything that really matters he is the superior of the man he has to defer to; the Count was a credibly neurotic addict, totally unaware of how pathetic he makes himself look as his libido rules him; the Countess was a good deal more troubled, and more stroppy, than the saccharine saint we generally get.
Roland Wood’s Count looks as if he might be Hugh Bonneville’s younger brother (which is actually slightly unnerving) and Kate Valentine’s Countess looks like Julianne Moore, but I wasn’t left thinking “What a pity they can’t act as well as HB and JM” (& I bet neither actor can sing like them!). Both are excellent. I loved Devon Guthrie’s curly-topped, warm-voiced Susanna, Timothy Robinson's Don Basilio is luxury casting indeed in such a small part, and Kathryn Rudge’s Cherubino is also good. Rudge looks about fifteen and splendidly captures the physical gaucheness of adolescence, seemingly not quite in control of her limbs yet; she reminded me vividly, despite being a good a foot shorter than him, of my younger brother at that age. The Count’s aggression towards Cherubino, his desire to victimise and crush a potential competitor before he can spread his adult wings, was pointed up strongly in moments of painfully violent bullying.
The best thing in the whole evening, though, was the marvelous Figaro of Iain Paterson. I’ve become a huge fan of this big rangy Scotsman over the last few years. He is amazingly versatile, his voice is both lustrously beautiful and absolutely huge, and he is one of the best actors on the British operatic stage at the moment. I suppose it comes of having been brought up on the old Erich Kleiber recording with Cesare Siepi (& a gobsmacking cast altogether), but I do love a Figaro who inclines towards the bass end of things. Patterson has an amazing stage presence as well, and this was some seriously sexy singing. He also has very good diction; not a syllable got lost from start to finish (& I was sitting fairly high-up in the gods, so not in the optimum position for catching everything). Roland Wood has a lovely voice, too, but if I’m honest most of the time he could have been singing in Dutch for all I could tell; not so with the ginger giant from Glasgow. I'd love to hear Mr Paterson singing Figaro opposite Favourite Baritone as the Count; now that would be a confrontation worth seeing.
I’ve previously seen Mr Paterson at ENO as a searingly tragic Amfortas, easily holding his own against John Tomlinson and Stuart Skelton (& believe me, this takes some doing), as a gorgeously nasty Mephistophiles, easily the best thing in a dodgy “Faust” last year, and first of all as a powerful Amonasro, dazzling me with his mighty singing even as as he rose above a cringe-making costume and fuzzy-wuzzy wig. All I want to say to him now is “Bring it on!” Anything he can do, I want to see. The man is terrific.