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Figaro Gets a Divorce

Welsh National Opera

IN Review Welsh National Opera Figaro Divorce hdl 516
Oke and Lois in Welsh National Opera’s Figaro Gets a Divorce
© Richard Hubert Smith

THE CULMINATION OF Welsh National Opera’s “Figaro forever” season, devised by the company’s artistic director David Pountney, was a new opera by Elena Langer, Figaro Gets a Divorce (seen Feb. 21), directed by Pountney, who also created the libretto. Its source is a play by the Central European writer Ödön von Horváth, born in the Austro-Hungarian city of Rijeka—now in Croatia—in 1901. He died thirty-seven years later in a freak accident in Paris when a branch fell on his head during a thunderstorm. 

At that time, von Horváth was effectively a refugee, and it is as refugees during the French Revolution that his 1936 text presents Figaro, Susanna, the Count and the Countess in the further adventures of the main characters of Beaumarchais’s Marriage of Figaro

Cherubino, long believed to be dead, also returns, reappearing in the opera as the Cherub, a nightclub owner, who later in the action really is shot dead—but not before it is established that he is the father of Serafin, the Countess’s son.  In addition, the busy amorous butterfly finds time during the piece to impregnate Susanna.

These and other complicated plot details, however—Serafin is also the lover of Angelika, love-child of the Count and Barbarina, while much of the action is manipulated by the sinister Major, who blackmails more than one of the other characters—are not that easy to follow over the course of two hours.

Designed by Ralph Koltai (sets) and Sue Blane (costumes), the production portrayed the Europe-out-of-joint of the 1930s, a period that Koltai himself knew all too well: born in 1924 to a Hungarian Jewish family, at fifteen he was on the final Kindertransport to leave Germany for the U.K. It was all the more moving, therefore, to see the ninety-one-year-old sculptor and theatrical designer take his bow at the end of the evening.

The production was well received. Three participants reprised the roles they’d played earlier in the season in The Marriage of Figaro. A very different world of dark secrets and cynicism is explored in the new opera, in which the marriage celebrated in Mozart’s piece has clearly hit the rocks. Mark Stone sang the world-weary Count, desperately trying at the gambling tables to recoup the family fortune lost and now much needed. Elizabeth Watts was the increasingly troubled Countess, David Stout the frustrated Figaro and Marie Arnet the tormented Susanna, regretfully let go by the penniless Almaviva family and employed as a singer in the Cherub’s nightclub. 

There seemed to be more hope for the younger generation, represented by Rhian Lois’s Angelika and Naomi O’Connell’s Serafin—both played with conviction and sung with clear, clean tone. Masterminding the many sinister events was the Major of versatile tenor Alan Oke, in characteristically forthright and eye-catching form. In most performances of The Marriage of Figaro (though not the one I happened to catch on February 20, when he was indisposed), Oke also doubled as Dons Basilio and Curzio. 

The biggest success of the evening belonged to composer Langer, born in Moscow in 1974, who at the age of twenty-five came to England to further her studies at the Royal College of Music (with Julian Anderson) and subsequently at the Royal Academy of Music (with Simon Bainbridge), and who now permanently lives in the U.K. Among her previous operas have been The Girl of Sand (Almeida Festival, 2003) and The Lion’s Face (Brighton Festival, 2010). Neither of those efforts suggested the absolute fluency and sonic brilliance with which she has set Pountney’s Divorce libretto.  Delivering lyricism, color and some sheerly gorgeous sounds in an instrumentation only slightly expanded from Mozart’s, her opera made an immediate and positive impact on the substantial audience in Cardiff.  —George Hall 

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