Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Marriage of Figaro: Opera North @ Lowry, Salford Quays

10, 12 May 2006

The second offering in Opera North’s varied summer season is that epitome of operatic finesse, Mozart’s Figaro. Although not quite matching the musical or scenic standards of La rondine, it nevertheless offers good value for money, its young cast throwing themselves into the rather physical production with energy. In every way, Figaro is a masterpiece that never fails to astonish in its variety and invention, and many of Mozart’s most popular arias derive from the work.

‘Voi che sapete’, ‘Deh vieni, non tardar, ‘Porgi amor’, ‘Dove sono’, ‘Non pi andrai’ – the piece is littered with examples of Mozart and Da Ponte’s psychological insight, and its narrative structure is astonishing. The second act finale remains one of opera’s most cleverly calculated set pieces, with character after character turning up on the scene to add to the confusion.

Opera North‘s production, which I first saw in May 1996 at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, is very strongly directed by Caroline Gawn. The pacing is exemplary, so that intimate arias are given the time to breathe, and the comic moments are intensified by imaginative stage business. However, the set designs by Alice Purcell are for the most part hideous, a repulsively grotesque Wizard of Oz-like background which is a shame, because the acting is dedicated and the evening is never less than entertaining.

There were some exceptional vocal performances. Wyn Pencarreg and Jeni Bern played Figaro and Susanna to perfection, the former in particular projecting well into the Lowry’s unforgiving acoustic. As the Countess, Linda Richardson rushed her way through her Act 2 aria but was highly impressive in ‘Are they over and gone forever’ (‘Dove sono’), both in coloratura and poignant delivery. And after a slightly weak first act, Julianne Young sang Cherubino with the warmth of tone that one hears only from the greatest Mozartians (not least her teacher at the Royal College of Music, Lillian Watson).

Angela Hickey was a vocally decrepit Marcellina, but so hilarious that one didn’t care; as Doctor Bartolo, Jonathan Best was underpowered but in the spirit of the production. The only real disappointment was James McOran-Campbell as the Count. Looking ill at ease for much of the time, he struggled to project his voice or produce the velvet timbre once expects for the role. However, he did sing his Act III aria with some elegance.

One of the strongest performances came from Lucy Crowe as Barbarina. She inhabited the character and the production very naturally, and has that easy soaring quality in her pure voice that is ideal for Mozart’s soubrette parts. She will surely be an admirable Susanna when she takes over the role on Opera North’s tour from 25 May.

The Orchestra of Opera North was again one of the evening’s strong points, with some lovely colours from the clarinet and oboe in the Countess’ arias and the strings accompanying subtly for the most part. Conductor Christian Gansch pushed some of the tempi in the wrong direction, for instance the excessively fast rendition of the opening arias of Act 2, which robbed it of feeling. Nevertheless, it all moved along very well, the musical pace rarely slackening, and the chorus acted and sang their socks off.

It may not carry the famous names or be the most glamorous Marriage of Figaro you could ever hope to see, but it’s one of the freshest and most lively Mozart productions currently doing the rounds.

Opera North performs The Marriage of Figaro again at the Lowry, Salford Quays, on Friday May 12, and tours with Figaro, La rondine and Kurt Weill’s Arms and the Cow to Newcastle, Hull, Sheffield and Aberdeen until June 17.

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The Marriage of Figaro: Opera North @ Lowry, Salford Quays