For the second run of their 2006-07 Marriage of Figaro production, the English National Opera has assembled a splendid cast. Though David McVicar’s stage production of last season at the Royal Opera House was remarkable for its innovative details, Olivia Fuchs has brought further insight to ENO’s current staging. Figaro’s aria at the end of the first act was particularly poignant. Though Figaro is supposed to be mocking young Cherubino, who is to join the Count’s regiment, it is Figaro who finds the prospect unbearable.
He and Susanna, who comforts Figaro, understand the cruelty inherent in sending young soldiers to war. Figaro collapses in despair while the pink carnations, present at the front of the stage throughout, become red as to remind one of blood or perhaps of the poppies of war fields.
Basilio is less of a buff one and more of an intelligent, quick-eyed manipulator than usually portrayed. He almost speaks (rather than sings) his recitative solos, thus emphasising the single character in the proceedings who is not caught up in emotions.
There are few puzzling aspects in the otherwise flawless production. In the first act the village people face the audience, instead of the Count who is standing behind them, while they sing his praises. This staging of the chorus makes musical sense but contradicts the dramatic plot. When in the second act Cherubino escapes through a window, we are treated to the spectacle of a window frame being lowered (and immediately after the jump lifted) from the stage. Do we need this distraction? Though it causes no hindrance to the dramatic and musical flow, I can’t help wondering about the small rocking horse in Figaro’s room: is it a nod to later times when Figaro might have children?
The singers are not only excellent singers but they are particularly well cast. They look their parts, the quality of their voices suggests their parts and their acting is credible throughout. Scott Hendricks even manages to show the vulnerable (as well as the objectionable) side of the Count thus making his final plea for forgiveness genuine and uplifting. Susan Gritton, as the Countess, portrays a truly passionate as well as an unhappy heroine: her pact with her maid Susanna feels perfectly natural. The chemistry between Iain Paterson (Figaro) and Sarah Tynan (Susanna) works well. Stephanie Marshall‘s Cherubino is the embodiment of teenage enthusiasm with blundering angst. Alan Oke is superb as the manipulating Basilio.
Sadly, the musical direction is lacking understanding and basic skills thus coming dangerously close to ruining Mozart’s masterpiece. Conductor André de Ridder has no sense of tempo or musical texture. Even allowing for differences in taste, there is no excuse for ignoring Mozart’s tempo markings. De Ridder’s constant fast speeds negate Mozart’s exquisite human portrayal as well as the drama’s twists and turns. We are deprived of the extraordinary depths of both great finale scenes, of the amazing sextet in the third act and of the letter duet. Singers and orchestra were slightly apart at the beginning of each number: I hasten to add that it was not their fault. With such basic shortcomings in the musical direction it might be churlish to mention but I wonder why a harpsichord is used for the recitatives. Surely in Mozart’s time the fortepiano was more likely and it would be a step closer to ENO’s modern orchestra.