thu 19/09/2019

The Marriage of Figaro, Buxton Festival | reviews, news & interviews

The Marriage of Figaro, Buxton Festival

The Marriage of Figaro, Buxton Festival

Non-Mozart version sounds better than it looks in this first revival since 1799

Portugal makes exceptional demands on the principals: Nicholas Merryweather and Emily Rowley-Jones as Figaro and Susanna

Following the three home-grown opera productions, in come the visitors. And so we come to the “other” Figaro, the one by the 18th-century Portuguese composer, Marcos Portugal. This being Buxton and the visiting company being Bampton Classical Opera, fellow-travellers in reviving neglected later 18th-century works, Mozart would be just too, well, common. It’s not all that long ago that we had the “other” Barber of Seville, the Paisiello version here. And we have had several helpings of Cimarosa over the years, from The Secret Marriage to The Italian Girl in London.

Marking the 250th anniversary of Portugal’s birth, this production - the first modern revival since the work premiered on Boxing Day 1799 in Venice at the start of the Carnival - is timely. One of the most successful and prolific composers his country has ever produced, Portugal in his time enjoyed royal patronage, international fame and was the toast of Venice.

If only the standard of acting could match the singing

In taking up The Marriage of Figaro in the form of a two-act opera buffa, rather than the more customary four-act form, he was responding to the Paisiello’s success with the Barber. His librettist, Gaetano Rossi, clearly knew Da Ponte’s version, but that hardly matters, since here we have a new translation by Bampton’s own Gilly French and Jeremy Gray. Would that one could have heard all the words clearly, especially from the women. This production was crying out for side titles.

The Beaumarchais story remains the same, as does the structure and the main characters. As for the music, spiritedly played in keeping with the feel of the piece by the Northern Chamber Orchestra, the Festival’s resident band, under conductor Robin Newton, Portugal amply demonstrates his ability to please. This is orchestration of real quality and melody, and he provides a steady stream of pleasing arias and duets. He makes exceptional demands on the principals, especially Susanna. Happily, Emily Rowley-Jones (pictured right) meets them in style, with fearless coloratura. Her duet with Lisa Wilson (Countess Almaviva) in Act two is a highlight. The singing generally is of a high standard. Nicholas Merryweather’s Figaro is strong and believable – and he sets an example in making every word clearly audible. Lyric tenor John-Colyn Gyeantey works hard as Count Almaviva and Joanna Seara is a sweet-voiced and perky Cherubino.

If only the standard of acting could match the singing, but it is generally self-conscious and awkward. The staging doesn’t help. Jeremy Gray is responsible for the direction and the design, both of which are lacklustre. He hits the wrong note right from the start, having characters scurrying about aimlessly during the overture. Overtures are meant to be listened to without distraction. As we first meet Figaro and Susanna, preparing for their wedding, we see a large cardboard box stamped Ikea Sevilla  - and Figaro starts to empty it and fiddle with bits of wood on the floor. That sets the tone – a cheap laugh.

The costumes, designed by Fiona Hodges, look as though they’ve been plucked at random from a children’s playbox. Count Almaviva looks as if he’s just stepped out of the Arabian Nights, wearing a turban with a feather in it. Figaro looks Roman in toga and sandals. The leading women wear big frocks. And so on. The overall movement is awkward and ungainly, with the singers often being left standing in a line. And there’s a rather basic, half-hearted ensemble dance thrown in. It really is just a mish-mash.

I am glad to have had the opportunity to discover Portugal the composer. It proves that there are treasures on the shelves, which are worth dusting off. One can’t help but wonder why this “other” Figaro went into obscurity after just seven performances, even though it was following behind Mozart.

This is orchestration of real quality and melody, and he provides a steady stream of pleasing arias and duets

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