Friday 19 August 2016

Funny, lively and vivid: Le nozze di Figaro at Grimeborn

Heather Caddick, Cheyney Kent and ensemble - Mozart Marriage of Figaro - Grimeborn Festival - photo Nick Rutter
Heather Caddick, Cheyney Kent and ensemble - Mozart The Marriage of Figaro - Grimeborn Festival - photo Nick Rutter
Mozart Le nozze di Figaro; Cheyney Kent, Heather Caddick, Dario Dugandzic, Sofia Troncoso, Katie Slater, dir: Lewis Reynolds, cond: John Jansson; Grimeborn Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 16 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Lively small-scale production of Mozart's opera which brings out the funny side

Sofia Troncoso, Cheyney Kent, Heather Caddick - Mozart The Marriage of Figaro - Grimeborn Festival - photo Nick Rutter
Sofia Troncoso, Cheyney Kent, Heather Caddick
photo Nick Rutter
The Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre has developed a reputation for presenting innovative small-scale productions of established classics. This year's festival included Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle, Cav and Pag and Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. We caught Mozart's opera on 16 August 2016 in a production by Opera 24 and Darker Purpose. John Jansson conducted his own orchestration for an ensemble of eight, and Lewis Reynolds directed a cast which included Cheyney Kent as the Count, Heather Caddick as the Countess, Dario Dugandzic as Figaro, Sofia Troncoso as Susanna, Katie Slater as Cherubino, Esther Mallett as Barbarina, Elizabeth Graham as Marcellina, Simon Masterton-Smith as Bartolo and Antonio, Edward Saklatvala as Basilio and Don Curzio. Designs were by Alexander McPherson and lighting by Davy Cunningham.

Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro is a big ask of any company, the opera's very perfection demands similar perfection from its performers, even before thinking about staging and dramaturgy. The production at Grimeborn was played in the round, in a studio theatre which put an even bigger onus on the singers. Lewis Reynolds' production used a simple square of parquet flooring as playing area, with lighting to delineate areas and rooms. This was particularly effective in creating multiple playing areas, such as corridors next to rooms, and for Act Two we were able to see both the Countess's room and inside the closet next door. There were a minimum of props and just two chairs, the result was admirably unfussy and focussed in terms of visuals.

Sofia Troncoso - Mozart The Marriage of Figaro - Grimeborn Festivel - photo Nick Rutter
Sofia Troncoso - photo Nick Rutter
The production style was apparent from the opening when Figaro and Susanna's room was in fact little more than a corridor. Dario Dugandzic's Figaro and Sofia Troncoso's Susanna had to squeeze past each other to deliberately comic effect. The production made significant use of mime (opening and closing doors, crouching behind bushes etc.), and physical theatre. Reynolds seemed to have a need to keep things moving, and even in the big ensembles we had much stylised physical action.

This was paired with a highly immediate English translation (by Reynolds) which made a large use of modern idiom and demotic, though the diction of the cast was a bit patchy. It was the men who brought out the text most clearly, whilst the women seemed to prize line above textural clarity so we had to strain to follow the dialogue.

The result was in fact a highly immediate and vivid production which brought out the comedic and farcical elements of the piece. This was one of the funniest performance's of Mozart's that I have seen. The problem was that some of the calm beauty and inner depth of the piece was lost, very much dependent on how the individual soloists were able to project a sense of their character's inner life. Thankfully the four central characters, Cheyney Kent's Count, Heather Caddick's Countess, Dario Dugandzic's Figaro and Sofia Troncoso's Susanna, were strongly cast. They provided performances which rose well above credible and creditable.

Dario Dugandzic used his dark bass-baritone voice to project a serious, intense Figaro. The moment in Act Four when he experiences real jealousy was very powerful indeed, fleshing out a finely detailed performance. He was not without humour either, with a sense of fun and even malice. Dugandzic also brought out the sense of anger in the role in moments like the Act One aria, 'Se vuol ballare'.

Dugandzic's Figaro and Troncoso's Susanna developed a real feeling of the characters' not-uncomplicated relationship, which seemed the engine of much of the performance. Troncoso's Act Four solo was poignant and beautifully sung, at a level with the remainder of her performance. Though strong minded, I found that for me she was a little too serious and she lacked the sense of mischievous fun which the best Susanna's bring to the role, perhaps because in the small studio space Troncoso's voice could equally have encompassed the Countess.

Cheyney Kent was a fine figure of a Count, not the most authoritarian of figures but confident in his authority over the servants, and very much in the line of Harry Enfield's Tim Nice-but-Dim, full of his own importance and schemes yet completely oblivious to cause and effect. It helped that Kent is a highly detailed actor, reacting well so I was constantly noticing his eyes. His treatment of Heather Caddick's Countess was cavalier rather than vicious. The two developed a superb relationship and the air crackled when they were in the same room.

Heather Caddick was a poised and mature Countess, singing both arias with ease and control, she made a big impression here but even more so in the poignant final moments. But this wasn't just a finely sung account of the role, Caddick gave us a feeling for the Countess's inner drama. And some of the best music drama of the evening was when these four principals were on stage together, and we had a real sense of theatre happening at close range.

Katie Slater was a highly personable Cherubino, though in the small playing area it would have been good if she had been rather less feminine in her looks and behaviour. A creditable musical performance was combined with an enthusiastic participation in the physical theatre of the production perhaps to the detriment of subtler characterisation.

The supporting cast were all strong and hard-working, though they did not always reach the same level of detail as the principals. The performance seemed to take a little time to reach balance, and the second half was far stronger as ensemble drama, though the first had some good individual moments.

Elizabeth Graham as Marcellina was lumbered with a neo-18th century paniered dress which deliberately gave her a physical awkwardness which was over-used for comic effect. Graham took sometime to warm up but came into her own in part two. Esther Mallett was a charming Barbarina, and though I would not want to have deprived her of her only solo moment, this was not the first time that I thought that Barbarina's Act Four aria held up the action somewhat. Both Simon Masterton-Smith and Alexander McPherson doubled characters, which made them hard working and busy to the point of impeding the clarity of the performance. The brief chorus moments were discreetly supplied by the principals

The hard-working ensemble, Rachel Broadbent (oboe), Bernard Lafontaine (clarinet), Rosemary Cow (bassoon), Oliver Till (piano), Sophie Langdon (violin), Morgan Goff (viola), Penny Bradshaw (cello) gave a lively account of the overture and there were many incidental felicities in their perofrmance, though some of the busier moments seemed somewhat a scrabble and I thought that the new orchestration seemed to need a little more rehearsal time to bed in. Oliver Till provided an unfussy continue and discreet harmonic support in the ensembles. The sightlines meant that conductor John Jansson had trouble in bringing off some of the more complex ensembles.

For the audience this performance really hit the spot as they responded to the comedy and physical theatre, aided by some highly detailed characterisation from the principals. You feel that this performance will settle in during the run.

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