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S & H Opera Review

Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro, ENO, Coliseum, 14th November 2001 (MB)

Following on from ENO’s modern version of Don Giovanni is this futuristic production of The Marriage of Figaro. I say futuristic because of the overwhelming presence of sci-fi gadgetry that has seemingly walked into this staging, from artificial limbs Terminator style to spectacles that emit red light. Given the debris on stage – from used fridges, to dilapidated furnishings, bent wheels with the spokes hanging off, rusty prams and the such – it seems like a post apocalyptic world. It struck me as more Pinter than Mozart, more Rocky Horror Picture Show than Beaumarchais.

The sheer extent of the rubbish on stage poses two problems: first for the singers who are restricted for movement (and routinely knock into props inadvertently) and, secondly, for the audience who spend more time looking at this mess than listening to the opera, a killer for any work, but particularly this one. Indeed, it is hard to work out what the director of this production, Steven Stead, is trying to achieve, for the message is very mixed. In one sense he is clearly going way beyond the libretto in making bad taste and public indecency something more overt than it actually is, but at the expense of the sexual intrigue which is the principle theme of this opera. In another, he is making a statement about political subversion which seems hopelessly misplaced in one of Mozart’s most melodic and poetic of operas. If this is about the degeneration of humanity into public and private squalor it fails. And, those wonderful moments when the music conjures up emotions of yearning and desolation (viz-à-viz the Countess’ misery) lack the emotional power they should.

The actual set design by Matthew Deely poses the question: just what would ENO do without scaffolding? It dominated both sides of the stage. An enormous water tank is suspended above the centre, rather like a metallic tree hut – the most grotesque palace imaginable. It is ugly in the sense that 1950’s housing is ugly. The stage is virtually devoid of colour, the lighting by Farley Whitfield seemingly affected by this rawness and nakedness. It is all far too gloomy for Mozart, and more in keeping with Schoenberg.

The production is almost rescued by the singing. Christopher Maltman, singing his first Figaro, is well toned in every sense but lacked stage presence; Leigh Melrose’s Count was grating on the ears and had the irritating habit of stomping around stage like a petulant child. Carrying a machine gun which looked more like a fish, and swamped in a cloak, he looked out of place, and even more so when accompanied by his two combat-dressed lieutenants – who at this performance looked uneasy and nervous, dropping a gun here and there. Victoria Simmonds, as Cherubino, has the look for the role – even though she too seemed ill at ease. She did, however, sing beautifully, as did Mary Nelson who was a charming Susannah in an utterly charmless production devoid of her values.

Best was the lithe playing of the ENO orchestra – beautifully conducted by Jane Glover. She gave a quicksilver performance of the score (from memory), her baton moving as if she was whisking the lightest of cakes. It was effortless in a way this production was just too much effort.

Marc Bridle


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