The Marriage of Figaro
JOE BATES finds bum-pinchingly crude jokes of CUOS’s Figaro ‘most importantly very, very funny’.
Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. 24th February, West Road Concert Hall.
A CUOS production produced by Laura Sutcliffe.
Old comedies are rarely funny. The only thing more annoying than the obscure satire of ‘the classics’ are the pretentious gits who laugh uproariously at every silly Shakespearean pun. And the humour of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro could not be sillier. Emphasis on its bum-pinchingly crude sex jokes risks turning the opera into an eighteenth-century Are You Being Served.
Yet CUOS’s energetic, well-directed cast avoided all the opera buffa pitfalls. Figaro was well sung, beautifully produced and, most importantly, very, very funny.
A lot of this humour was down to the excellent acting of the opera’s central figures. The exasperated Susanna (Maud Millar) and energetic Figaro (Henry Neill) showed excellent comic timing and an impressive mastery of physical comedy. The chemistry between them was charming, as was the relationship between the perma-sneering count and the weepily dejected Countess. The constant groping and raised eyebrows impressively avoided tiresomeness, despite its predictability.
Itt was the rubber-faced Amy Lyddon as Cherubino who really stole the show. The exaggerated expressions of the permanently mortified teenage rake prompted peals of laughter at every turn. Her cross-dressing antics (for much of the opera she is a girl dressed up as a boy dressed up as a girl) never failed to amuse.
Henry Neill as Figaro in the production’s extensive Facebook campaign. Photo courtesy of Henry Scarlett.
Yet the real comic centrepiece of the production is Imogen Tedbuy’s superb direction. The large cast of Figaro (eleven main characters) is supported by an extended chorus of twenty singers, a challenge met with aplomb. Each scene was superbly detailed; the characters on the sidelines were constantly active in the drama. The overture, normally a moment of calm before the main performance, was transformed into a directorial tour-de-force. Mozart’s bustling music was used to support an elaborate pantomime, with the whole cast setting the scene with some well-choreographed slapstick.
The layout of the stunning set helped them a good deal in this regard. The beautifully elaborate house was opened up to the stage, allowing the characters to move through the various rooms with ease. The transformation of the house into the garden for the final act was so ingenious that it got its own round of applause.
It is a testament to the strength of the production that I reach the sixth paragraph of my review without mention of the music. Opera is an artificial genre at best, and it is an impressive achievement that this performance barely felt like opera. Yet the musical content was generally very strong.
The singers were uniformly accurate, with a clarity of diction that ensured the communication of the cleverly translated libretto. Of particular note were Figaro (Henry Niell) and the Count (Dominic Sedgwick), whose beautifully clear bass voices underpinned the production.
At the other end of the vocal spectrum lay the production’s only real weakness. The Countess (Isabella Gage) was simply not of the standard of the rest of the cast. Her extremely wide, rapid vibrato muddied her tuning and made her voice sound artificial and forced. She had sometimes had difficulty blending with the rest of the cast in the otherwise balanced ensemble numbers.
The orchestral playing was generally sound and unobtrusive, although it clearly had difficulty adjusting to the pitch of the fortepiano. Buttock-clenchingly out of tune string lines occasionally marred the sound, whilst the clarity and control of the ensemble was not all it could have been. James Henshaw’s continuo playing was bizarrely abrupt, but mercifully discreet.
Despite these problems, and other minor first-night glitches, CUOS’s Figaro was truly a triumph. The denouement, where the clockwork plot’s double-bluffs finally coalesce into a moment of calm reflection, was a revelation not just of the mechanics of Da Ponte’s drama, but of the surprising strength of Cambridge’s student opera.