Review: The Marriage of Figaro

JOE CONWAY: ‘The characters played out their desires and deceptions in a dramatic form that approaches perfection and a score by Mozart that goes beyond it.’

Andrew Slater Benedict Quirke Cambridge Arts Theatre Lise Christensen Mark Wilde Marriage of Figaro

27th May 7.30pm at Cambridge Arts Theatre, £35/£30/£25/£15 

The morning sunlight of Seville streamed through the tall louvred windows and onto the stage of the Cambridge Arts Theatre in this ETO production of The Marriage of Figaro. Later the mellow sunshine yielded to the deep blue of an exotic night. Though there were none of the usual hedges or shrubs in Count Almaviva's garden, the lighting was enough to create an illusion of nocturnal mystery and opportunity. And against this background the characters played out their desires and deceptions in a dramatic form that approaches perfection and a score by Mozart that goes beyond it.

There are two couples in the opera – the Count and Countess, and Figaro and Susanna. In the finale the Count manages a successful seduction of Susanna whom he's fancied from the start. The only thing is it's not Susanna he gets off with in the dark but the Countess in disguise. A little later Figaro declares his passionate love for the Countess, only – you've guessed! – it's not the Countess but Susanna he's actually pulling. And so it goes on. But despite the apparent absurdities the music and drama combine to comment wittily on infidelity, the battle of the sexes, and even the human condition.         

As the Count Nicholas Lester looked the part once he got into his crimson knickerbocker suit in Act 2. His haughty personality, strong voice, and clear diction dominated the proceedings whenever he was onstage. Robert Davies was a little less successful as Figaro. Despite some energetic acting and a pleasant voice, he was hard to hear when he went upstage and his Act 4 aria was cut. Mozart obviously had a real love affair with the soprano voice and both the Countess and Susanna have marvellous opportunities. Alinka Kosari brought huge dignity to the part of the Countess, though her opening Act 2 aria was spoiled by a surfeit of vibrato. And Paula Sides stressed the genial and down-to-earth aspects of Susanna's character rather than her sexual allure.

As well as the four protagonists there's also a gang of minor characters – Marcellina, Dr Bartolo, Don Basilio and Don Curzio, unified in this production by their black outfits. Enjoyably played by Lise Christensen, Andrew Slater, Mark Wilde and Benedict Quirke, they aim to stop Figaro's marriage to Susanna by bringing a breach of promise action against him. It's Marcelina who wants Figaro for her husband but in the sublime Act 3 Sextet it turns out that he's her son and that Bartolo's his father.

But the most intriguing joker in the pack is Cherubino. Hormonal and sex-crazed he's a teenage boy who falls in love with every girl he meets. The only thing is he's always played by a woman on the principle boy plan. So that there's often a rather fetching sapphic tinge to his interaction with the Countess, Susanna and her cousin Barbarina (Stephanie Edwards). It goes without saying that he gets dressed up as a girl at one point, so that the actress is actually a girl playing a boy playing a girl! Niamh Kelly as Cherubino quite simply stole the show whenever she – oops! he – was onstage. Mind you Cherubino does have two of the best songs in the opera, and that's saying a lot. But Niamh really made the most of them, using her vibrant mezzo voice to passionate effect and investing her acting with delicious comedy.

Throughout the evening there was beautiful orchestral playing from the pit especially from the solo wind instruments, But why on earth a company as prestigious as ETO should use an inferior electric keyboard rather than a harpsichord for the recitatives beats me. Do they really think people don't notice?