At three hours, Mozart’s adaptation of La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro is a trial for atrophying posterior muscles, but librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, Amadeus and Andrews ease the pain; analgesia for the soul.
I’ll confess: in the opening moments, I was a little apprehensive. Fluorescent lighting. A starkly modern, whitewashed, symmetrical set, comprising clothes racks and a washing-machine. It was looking like a ‘look at me’ director was at work. I was worried in the sense Meryl Streep is, as Maggie Thatcher, in the recently-released The Iron Lady: “It used to be people wanted to do something; now, they want to be somebody.” I never thought I’d be paraphrasing Thatcher but, despite the widely differing context, it seemed apt.
I needn’t have worried. Of course, a ‘look at me’ director was at work — Benedict Andrews. But as in other showcases of his craft, the attention-getting more than paid off. And again, at least if one is to subscribe to the popular ebullient image of Wolfy, in a whole other sense than ever before, one fancies he would’ve heartily approved with a Salzburgian chuckle.
There are plenty of chuckles to be had in Andrews’ characteristically cheeky, upstart, irreverent take. And plenty resonated between the concrete walls of the Opera Theatre on opening night, auguring well for a blockbuster season. And why not? Almost every scene is executed with brash panache, naughty humour and acerbic wit. A budget wedding, with plastic chairs and helium balloons, for example. And yet, even amidst this rustic Aussiefied setting, there’s an elegant, balletic aesthetic, thanks to Lucy Guerin. And the rest of the creative team are clearly sympathetic to the vision: Alice Babidge’s costuming; Nick Schlieper’s blinding lighting; Ralph Myers’ set, which slides to reveal new ‘pages’, much like your iPhone.
Things get really raucous just before interval, with moose-humping and all kinds of hell-breaks-loose anarchic antics. It’s almost side-splitting and definitely fun. The cast seem to be having fun as well. No corsets or stitched-up melodrama here. It’s a full-Monte slapstick parody of social and sexual relations, just as, one also assumes, Beaumarchais’ would’ve wanted it.
As the original French title suggests, all the action takes place in one mad day. And it’s worth pointing to the context in which it was conceived: the midstream work in a trilogy; preceded by The Barber Of Seville and succeeded by The Guilty Mother. One wonders how, when and why Figaro retrained as a butler (or security guard, here), having been a barber, but this, perhaps, is just another conceit of comic opera whereby one must simply suspend disbelief and not seek to question, let alone answer. In any case, his aloe is a fascinating, compelling, complex and contradictory character: at once, amoral and unscrupulous, a trickster and liar, yet charismatic, charming and eminently likeable, if not downright adorable; inspired by the commedia dell’arte character of Brighella. He even carried a battachio!
Not least by dint of the free interpretation of the work, performances are unbridled and wonderful: Taryn Fiebig as Susanna, Figaro’s betrothed and maid to the countess, shines as never before, not only with a shimmering vocal tenacity but with good humour and more confidence than ever. At least, that’s how she appears and sounds. Joshua Bloom’s Figaro has a twinkle in his eye and a boom-boom, shake-the-room in his bass.
Jacqueline Dark, too, is showing off her theatrical skills every bit as much as her mezzo marvels. Conal Coad is a perfect cohort, as her counsel, Dr Bartolo; both are plumped-up and waddle around like two old ducks, or duck and drake; Bartolo reliant on rollator and portable oxygen. There’s nothing decrepit about that baritone though.
The ever-popular Dominica Matthews is cast as the page, Cherubino, veritably bursting with ardent hormonal enthusiasm. Presumably, given Matthews’ superlative, fragile mezzo-soprano, his voice has yet to break. You might think of him, or her, in this role, as a mezzista.
Michael Lewis’ is the philandering count, yet again show his extraordinary versatility and style, with a competent, self-assured and engaging performance.
Kanen Breen, easily shaping-up as one of my prized favourites on the opera stage, is remarkable as Basilio, fey-as, with a pink pullover draped genteelly over his shoulders. His ability to reinvent himself, almost utterly, for each and every role, is astounding. Clifford Plumpton’s Antonio, in this case a quintessentially Aussie gardener, is also a comic tour de force.
And we could hardly forget Elvira Fatykhova as the countess. When she and Fiebig sing together it induces that died-and-gone-to heaven sound and feeling that’s rare, precious and so indulgently satisfying; almost a guilty pleasure. And Jessica Dean’s Barbarina places her squarely in the same league of gentlewomen vocalists.
While playing it, outwardly, for the opera buffa it assuredly is, Andrews’ hasn’t missed the satire Beaumarchais had firmly in mind and which resulted in its being banned, when first performed in Vienna. This would seem to indicate some serendipitous camaraderie of sprit and leaning between originator and replicator which, apparently, hasn’t been lost on Opera Australia’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini, whose bravely made this bold and inspired selection of director. Andrews, or someone, seems to have kept the tart flavour of controversy firmly in mind, right down to featuring photos by Bill Henson in the programme.
Just as he’s aimed for, conductor Simon Hewett has managed, with the willing and able complicity of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, to make the familiar sound fresh, such that we might appreciate, anew, ‘the complexity and modernity of his music’, cunningly disguised to the naked, uneducated ear by simple, sublime melodies.
Andrews mightn’t have quite achieved, with any particular precision, his portrayal of a gated community, but he has created a sense of incestuousness and claustrophobia, while remaining awake to the proletarian politics of the play and opera. In reflecting on it, now the cascades of laughter have dissipated, I’m reminded of Figaro’s famous speech from Beaumarchais’, which might as easily apply to the Murdochs, Packers or Rineharts of this world:
“Nobility, riches, a title, high positions, that all makes a (wo)man so proud! What have you done for such fortune? You went to the trouble of being born, and nothing else.”
Try and ensure you put The Marriage of Figaro firmly on your list of engagements.
The details: The Marriage Of Figaro plays the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House for 10 more performances until March 24. Tickets on the OA website.