ENO @ Coliseum, London, 8, 10, 14, 16, 21, 23, 27, 30 Nov, 5, 7 Dec 2001
Steven Stead, the South African born director and actor, has chosen to make quite a splash with his first new production for ENO. Whether or not this production will stand the test of time is, I think, doubtful, but it certainly isn't yet another run-of-the-mill Marriage of Figaro. Where to begin? First of all, it should be said that the genius of Mozart transcends pretty well anything, and this is a hugely enjoyable evening - some wonderful singing, Jane Glover in perfect control of the ENO orchestra, and a lot of fun on the stage.
The production is a send-up of post-modernism, with a single set - part gritty realism and part sci-fi. The Count and Countess live in a silver box suspended mid-stage, from which a metal staircase leads to the chaotic junk-room allotted to Figaro and Susanna. Virtually all the action of the opera takes place in this space, literally below stairs - unlikely, but hey, this is opera.
The characters take their inspiration from a dizzying range of television and film creations, and playing spot the reference becomes an integral part of the fun. Susanna: a young Barbara Windsor in full Carry On mode? Figaro: trickier - looking like standard-issue gay icon on at first, in tight violet vest and black combat trousers - Robbie Williams? Almaviva is a stock sci-fi baddie, in a plum and black uniform with flowing cape and Sheriff of Nottingham beard; Marcellina and Doctor Bartolo each have a bionic limb as if the Star Trek Borgs have been getting at them. Don Curzio is another part man, part machine, in a wheelchair propelled by a James Bond oriental beauty. Don Basilio can only be Riff-Raff, and manages to be even oilier than Richard O'Brien in the Rocky Horror Show. Cherubino is a sexy little beast that I can't identify - Star Wars? Answers on a post card please... I obviously haven't been watching enough films in recent years.
Whether all this helps to demonstrate that Beaumarchais's subversive play is still relevant today is open to question. Stead is saying that the equivalent of the aristocrats of old are still there, exerting pressure and trying to control the minions; I'm just not sure we need to look at Star Trek to understand that. However, there's a lot to enjoy in this production and some great performances.
Mary Nelson is a perfect Susanna: pert, lively and possessed of a charming and secure soprano. Her Figaro is Christopher Maltman, a fine actor and singer who makes an attractive character but who lacks a little power in the big spaces of the Coliseum. He's shortly to undertake Figaro at Glyndebourne and his voice will probably be heard to better effect there. Orla Boylan as the Countess struggled with her first aria - a stinker to sing cold - but we were grateful to see her at all, as just two days before, illness had made her appearance very uncertain. She improved steadily as the evening went on and will surely delight for the rest of the run.
Leigh Melrose cut a good figure as the dissolute and power-hungry Count, especially effective in his over-sized black leather chair upstairs (a visual reference to Francis Bacon's subversive Pope Innocent X?). Claire Weston (Marcellina) and Mark Richardson (Bartolo) provided good comic relief - both were in good voice. Andrew Shore, one of our best operatic comics, made the most of the minor role of Antonio, the drunken gardener. In this production he is dressed as a member of the orchestra and carries a broken cello rather than the normal pot of geraniums, as when Cherubino jumps into the 'garden' to escape the Count he actually jumps into the orchestra pit...
Which leads me to perhaps the star of this show, Cherubino. Victoria Simmonds is absolutely charming (and totally believable) as the petulant teenager, both acting and singing superbly. Whether acting tough in black bomber jacket and yeti boots (who is this character based on?) or sprawling across the stage in high heels, she brings a freshness to what can sometimes be a rather sickly pageboy. Her Barbarina is good, too - Clare Ormshaw is about the same (diminutive) height as Simmonds and they make a pretty pair.
It's a shame that ENO has abandoned the practice of bringing the director and design team out to take a bow on the first night of a new production. It was always a risky business with cutting edge productions, but there are only a couple of performances I can remember when the boos drowned out the cheers (and they merited that response). There would probably have been a mixture last night, but I'm pretty sure the cheers would have won.