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The Marriage of Figaro

English National Opera

In Review Figaro HDl 112
Guthrie and Paterson, Susanna and Figaro in Shaw's ENO Figaro
© Sarah Lee 2012

Acclaimed Irish actress Fiona Shaw has become one of English National Opera's more experienced opera initiates, staging first Vaughan Williams's rare, J. M. Synge-based Riders to the Sea in 2008, then Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers in 2010 — both of them successes for her and the company. Shaw's latest ENO assignment, however, pushed her for the first time into the central repertory and was not an unequivocal hit. Sung in Jeremy Sams's familiar translation, The Marriage of Figaro opened at the London Coliseum on October 5. 

Shaw's designer, Peter McKintosh, placed the action in a maze-like structure of white modernist walls that revolved to reveal background activity — often in the shape of servants at their work — in the Castle of Aguasfrescas. As it turned round, the principal characters — partly costumed in period dress, partly not — stepped from room to room, even in the hyperactive finale to Act II, which traditionally takes place entirely in the Countess's boudoir but here ended up in the castle's kitchen. One regular visual image, the bodies of hunted animals, found a particularly noticeable place here; bulls' horns were also encountered throughout, hanging on the walls or carried by the male characters. The last-act garden scene found its location in a sequence of low-walled modernist boxes, with nothing organic or romantically nocturnal in sight. Here the interactive choreography of the principals lurking in the darkness with various intents lacked definition or subtlety. The result seemed curiously unfocused — a sketch of a farcical comic finale rather than an achieved realization of one. 

The characterizations Shaw drew from her cast felt limited and occasionally one-dimensional. Roland Wood's Count, though firmly and even aggressively sung, was a perpetual Mr. Angry. Devon Guthrie's Susanna also needed much more light and shade, registering as consistently fraught and harassed, as opposed to the traditionally quick-witted servant, ready for any eventuality; she sang her last-act serenade, however, with poise and allure. Iain Paterson's Figaro was solid enough vocally but lacked physical charisma in what must be a star assignment — though he, too, was impressive in his deliberate attack when delivering his Act IV tirade against women. Kathryn Rudge's Cherubino never managed the necessary stage trick of conveying adolescent maleness in her otherwise pleasantly sung page-boy. Jonathan Best's Bartolo needed a stronger bass register: he came across as merely lightly baritonal. 

One or two of the principals registered altogether more positively. Lucy Schaufer's Marcellina supplied energy and warmth in a production short on both. Best of all was the Countess, Elizabeth Llewellyn, whose rich-toned, agile soprano offered a level of vocal quality too often missing elsewhere; her performance was the more remarkable given that she was a late replacement, announced only on the day of performance. Following her strongly sung Mimì at the same address last season, Llewellyn here confirmed her potential as a rising star of the U.K. soprano firmament.

In the pit was conductor Paul Daniel, a former ENO music director, highly regarded in twentieth-century and contemporary scores, though never looked on as a Mozart specialist. On this occasion the recitatives were sluggish, inhibiting the momentum of a performance that never quite picked up in the arias and ensembles. Both musically and dramatically, the result was a muted evening. spacer 


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