‘For here they talk about nothing but Figaro.
Nothing is played, sung or whistled but Figaro.
No opera is drawing like Figaro.
Nothing, nothing but Figaro.’
So wrote Mozart to a friend and pupil on 15 January 1787 while on an extended visit to Prague.
More than two centuries later we find the master’s words retaining a certain degree of relevance.
David McVicar’s new production of Figaro at the Royal Opera House has garnered much critical acclaim during its month-long showing at Covent Garden. Welsh National Opera is currently performing Neil Armfield’s version of the work at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff, and will be taking it on tour next month. Finally, Opera North will be staging Caroline Gawn’s rendition of the opera in multiple locations between March and June.
It is into this highly-charged climate of ‘nothing, nothing but Figaro‘ that the Cambridge University Opera Society (CUOS) enters with its own original production. However, their originality spreads far beyond the stage. In the months leading up to the performances the cast and crew, consisting mostly of Cambridge students and graduates, were involved in a number of innovative outreach projects aimed at bringing opera into the wider community.
These events ranged from the introduction of ‘opera’ to primary school classes, to the exploration of musical interpretation and expression at the secondary school level. There was also the composition of a children’s version of Figaro by composer Peter Foggitt in conjunction with local school children. CUOS furthermore selected a number of sixth-form apprentices to be involved with the backstage crew, and organised several masterclasses for members of the production, given by leading professionals such as bass-baritone Jonathan Veira, conductor Martyn Brabbins, and director John Caird.
With the performance at hand, a near-capacity crowd eagerly anticipated what promised to be an exciting evening.
West Road Concert Hall, as its name suggests, was not designed primarily with opera in mind. Alice Murray’s minimalist production, however, coped admirably with the surroundings. The set consisted of three sizeable windows-cum-picture frames, with wooden chairs draped in white sheets acting as furniture. These chairs were re-arranged between each act to create the impression of a new scene. The pinewood tones prompted one patron sitting behind me to remark that ‘it looks like they have raided Ikea’, though in all fairness it did blend well with the venue.
Murray, along with director Nick Blackburn and lighting designer Andrew Lea-Cox, ingeniously offset what would otherwise have been a bare setting. The presence of the chorus in the background throughout Act 1, and the sensitive lighting in Acts 2 and 3, made the stage feel inviting and gemtlich. The moonlight in Act 4 was especially effective.
It was somewhat difficult to gauge the period of this production. The men were all wearing fairly modern outfits, while Cherubino was clothed in an 18th-century valet’s costume, and Countess Almaviva was wearing an unglamorous dress not particularly suitable for a countess.
Musical director James Sherlock ran a mostly tight ship, somewhat marred by an inconsistent violin section occasionally lacking the sweet quality of sound that the score requires. He did, however, coerce some wonderful phrasing from the woodwind, and the singers were always accompanied with great sensitivity.
The cast was a delight throughout, never ceasing to impress with the introduction of each new character. Tim Dickinson was a solid if unspectacular Figaro who nevertheless captured the spirit and the humour of his character. His chemistry with Susanna, beautifully played by Mary Bevan, was extremely entertaining.
It was clear who held the upper hand in this relationship. Bevan’s voice was magnificent right from the start, culminating in a charming performance of Deh vieni, non tardar in Act 4. Her acting prowess was equally dazzling, as with each appearance on stage her vibrant persona arrested the audience’s attention.
Jonathan Sells struck a fine and imposing figure playing the role of Count Almaviva, and possessed an intensely commanding voice to match. His endless frustration from repeatedly failing in his endeavour to keep Figaro and Susanna apart was a constant source of enjoyment. He was daunting yet droll, cunning yet comical, always showing the perfect amount of whichever characteristic circumstance called for.
His wife, played by Augusta Hebbert, juxtaposed feelings of knowing and navet in relation to the Count’s actions with brilliant effect. Her silky-smooth tone and delicate phrasing contributed to an exquisite rendition of Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro at the beginning of Act 2 and a beautiful performance of Crudel, perch finora with Susanna at the start of Act 3.
James Williams Oldfield, as Bartolo, produced what was perhaps the highlight of the evening with a mesmerising performance of La Vendetta in Act 1 that brought the house down. John McMunn was brilliantly cast as the mischievous, gossip-mongering Basilio, while Julian Forbes garnered much laughter as the stuttering Curzio. Lucy Taylor gave an excellent and highly amusing portrayal of Cherubino, Cassandra Extavour was a pleasantly perky Marcellina, and Laura Holmes was stunning as Barbarina, with an enchanting account of L’ho perduta, me meschina.
This performance of Figaro was thoroughly enjoyable, made even more so by Jeremy Sams’ hilarious English translation of the original libretto. CUOS certainly delivered, not only in their performance, but in their generosity towards the Cambridge community. Long may their good work continue.