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Mozart,   The Marriage of Figaro:  
Sung in Italian with surtitles. Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Northern College of Music / Baldur Brönniman (conductor) Bruntwood Theatre, RNCM, Manchester  4.12.2007 (RJF)

There is no more challenging opera than Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro. Mozart’s music is taxing for singers and orchestra with its wide variety of skipping melodies, introspective arias and the serious and comic situations that befits an opera buffa. Add in  Da Ponte’s masterly detailed libretto and the demands  on all participants are massive, none more so than on the producer, particularly when the singers are students, for some of  whom this will be their first stage performances  in their respective roles.

The RNCM is fortunate in that their Director of Opera Studies, Stefan Janski, is an immensely experienced producer who over the past nearly twenty years has guided many the through their first performances of staged opera.  Along the way I recall not a single turkey and Stefan  Janski  has often dabbled in updating plots and changes in venue from the original libretto without losing the intention of the creators. So it was with this Figaro, updated to 1920s

The update made little difference, to either Mozart’s music or  the plot. Yes, the Count appears in a silk dressing gown and Marcellina looks like a refugee from Carmen, but nothing is really out of place. The sets were imaginative and moved easily  so there was no need for a long gap between Acts I  and I nor between III and IV. The room allotted to the young couple in Act I was rather small for Figaro to measure and the main action, around the chair where Cherubino hides and is discovered, was brought forward to the front of the stage;  no bad thing and allowing the singers to get a feel for the full auditorium. The transitions from Act II  to the Act IV garden scene was as smooth, as I have noted. This is the most difficult scene in the whole opera to bring off and it says much for the set designers, and Janski’s direction as well as the singers, that it was achieved with realism and character. The great strength of these College productions though, derives from careful musical preparation by Robin Humphreys, as well as adequate stage rehearsal time overseen by Stefan Janski. The results are never merely slick, but are professional in the very best sense; and with the help from surtitles, the audience sees meaningful interactions between the singers as well as hearing the emotions in their vocal performances.

While the prime purpose of the college’s annual opera productions is to offer stage experience to the School of Vocal and Opera Studies' students, they also have the important function of providing a showcase for promising students. I think back to Amanda Roocroft’s Fiordiligi and Joan Rodgers’s Pamina - to mention just two alumni – for whom annual productions helped launch their careers. I choose two female singers deliberately, because this Figaro featured a Susanna, in Nadine Livingston, who surely will have a similar distinguished professional career. In my review of the College’s performance of Onegin last March, I admired the range of colour in her voice and it is even richer now. Add an easy stage presence and sparklingly acted transactions with colleagues and her future in the highly competitive profession seems assured. Also evident was growth in vocal power and characterisation. What her fach will be I do not know, but already she would manage Mimì.

But this was not a one woman show. In the title role, Oliver Dunn was an impressive actor. Early on,  his expression was better in recitative than aria, but well before the final act his singing and characterisation in both was excellent and his well-coloured and covered tone an added bonus. With his easy stage movement I expect to hear more of him in the future too.

Thomas Eaglen as the Count was lighter toned than his adversary and had the disadvantage of looking rather too young. Nonetheless, his acting was sincere and his singing smooth. John Dempsey, who I criticised as Gremin earlier in the year, was in far better voice as Bartolo and gave a well sung and convincingly acted portrayal. Matthew Moss was also a too young looking Basilio, but was suitably smarmy. He might have benefited from a more traditional costume than a graduate’s gown but at  only twenty two years of age his voice will surely grow and he also has stage presence.

Of the other ladies, Cressida Van Gordon was a big voiced Countess. She was somewhat nervous of the legato demands in the first verse of Porgi amour but with that out of the way she grew in confidence and played a full part in the interchanges with Susanna. Perhaps she would have been more comfortable as Elvira in Don Giovanni. As the buckish Cherubino Kathryn Rudge could hardly be blamed for her feminine facial features, but she sang her arias well and played the libidinous adolescent, always in the wrong place at the wrong time, to perfection throughout. I have referred to the Spanish influence of Marcellina’s costume and this certainly did not help Rebecca Chellappah to look like Figaro’s mother, at best his slightly elder sister. She tended to play her role with a touch too much youthful abandon - which Marcellina should have grown out of and which Janski might have contained -  particularly at the end of Act I, but students will out! Fleur Bray was a very youthful Barbarina, surely even in Mozart’s time, let alone Spain in the 1920s, they didn’t allow their barely pubescent daughters to get near the libidinous aristocracy let alone marry. Fleur acted well  however and sang her Act IV cavatina with nice tone and phrasing.

What was particularly pleasing about the whole evening was the clarity of diction from the soloists  and chorus, not always a strength of among college alumni of the past. Also thoroughly enjoyable was the vibrancy of the chorus and which together with the orchestral sound and Baldur Brönniman's conducting made for an excellent evening, well up to the standards we have come to expect over the years. There are further performances on December 6th, 12th and 15th at 7.0pm and 9th at 3.0pm. Opera starved Mancunians should not hesitate.

Robert J Farr


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