Monday, 16 March 2020

This crazy day: Joe Hill-Gibbins' new production of The Marriage of Figaro at English National Opera

Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro - Rowan Pierce, Hanna Hipp, Louise Alder, chorus - English National Opera 2020- (Photo © Marc Brenner)
Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro - Rowan Pierce, Hanna Hipp, Louise Alder, chorus - English National Opera 2020
(Photo © Marc Brenner)
Mozart The Marriage of Figaro; Elizabeth Watts, Johnathan McCullough, Louise Alder, Božidar Smiljanić, Hanna Hipp, dir: Joe Hill-Gibbins, cond: Kevin John Edusei; English National Opera at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 March 2020 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Theatre director Joe Hill-Gibbins provides a refreshing take on Mozart's masterpiece, with an emphasis on character

Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro - Božidar Smiljanić, Susan Bickley - English National Opera 2020- (Photo © Marc Brenner)
Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro - Božidar Smiljanić,
Susan Bickley in the background
English National Opera 2020- (Photo © Marc Brenner)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte's opera Le nozze di Figaro was written for a recently established Italian opera company in Vienna specialising in opera buffa. When that first audience saw the work in 1786, they would have seen a cast of singers with whom they were familiar from other comic operas presented by the company. Singers such as Francesco Bernucci (who sang Figaro) and Nancy Storace (who sang Susanna) would have, to a certain extent, invested Mozart's characters with elements of the stock Italian comic characters that the audience had seen them playing in the same theatre.

Mozart and da Ponte's innovation wasn't to mix comic and seria characters (this had already been done by Galuppi and Goldoni in Venice in the 1750s and 1760s), though from Mozart's letters to his father it was clear that his interest was in this mixture of comic and serious characters. But where the opera broke new ground was in treating the whole piece as music drama, depicting the comic characters with the same depth as the serious ones.

It is this balance between comic and serious that makes Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro delicious, and it is a balance that is difficult to get right. Productions can often get bogged down in the fact that this is great music, and the farce elements just are not funny, conversely if things are too comic then we do not invest enough in the characters. The Count must be a real threat, his actions must count so that the great moment at the end of Act Four when he begs for mercy from the Countess is suitably transformative.

For the new production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro) at the London Coliseum, English National Opera chose the theatre director Joe Hill-Gibbins, with strong cast including Johnathan McCullough as the Count, Elizabeth Watts as the Countess, Louise Alder as Susanna, Božidar Smiljanić as Figaro, Hanna Hipp as Cherubino, Susan Bickley as Marcellina, Andrew Shore as Dr Bartolo, Colin Judson as Don Basilio and Don Curzio, Clive Bayley as Antonio and Rowan Pierce as Barbarina. The work was conducted by Kevin John Edusei. Lighting was by Matthew Richardson, with choreography by Jenny Ogilvie and the translation was by Jeremy Sams.

The activities of La folle giornata, the crazy day at the Almaviva's palace are perhaps an apt metaphor for our crazy times, and we must be grateful that the performance was able to go ahead.

Joe Hill-Gibbins directed Thomas Ades' Powder her Face for ENO in 2014, and Mark-Anthony Turnage's Greek in a co-production between the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Scottish Opera and the Edinburgh International Festival in 2017/18. The Marriage of Figaro was a co-production with Oper Wuppertal where the production has already appeared in 2019. He seems to have approached The Marriage of Figaro with less reverence and more theatricality than some directors, perhaps his being primarily a theatre director meant that his production came with rather less historical operatic baggage. Unlike some directors, Hill-Gibbins and his design team seem to have given a lot of thought to the problems of producing a small to medium scale piece like The Marriage of Figaro in a large theatre like the London Coliseum using young voices.

Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro - Johnathan McCullough - English National Opera 2020- (Photo © Marc Brenner)
Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro - Johnathan McCullough - English National Opera 2020- (Photo © Marc Brenner)
Their solutions were intriguing and engaging, if a little mannered at times.
But what I enjoyed about the production was that Hill-Gibbins made the work funny, investing in the commedia dell'arte aspect of the comedy, whilst encouraging us to empathise with the characters and their serious emotional plights, so that the resolution did count. This was not a production which skimmed along prettily to a tidy conclusion, but one which, like life, combined humour, pathos and tragedy.

Johannes Schutz's set was a basic white box, very shallow with a row of four doors. Apart from Susanna's wedding dress there were no major props, no decorative touches, no furniture, nothing.

Only Astrid Klein's costumes placed the action, roughly contemporary, and these also delineated quite clearly the hierarchy in the household; this wasn't a production which made the mistake of treating Figaro and Susanna as equals to the Count and the Countess. Everything was mimed, the hiding in Act Two (which is rarely convincing from a naturalistic point of view) was simply done by hiding behind doors. For the moments which required multiple points of view, the box raised up allowing singers to be on two levels, though during Act Three this constant movement veered on the tiresome.

There was no real fourth wall, this opera was clearly being performed. Singers would come down to the footlights to address their soliloquies to the audience, and when Hanna Hipp's Cherubino announces he will jump from the window in Act Two we see a group of chorus members positioning the mattress. When the box was raised, we would often see action upstage (not visible from seats in the Upper Circle), with performers making preparations to go on.

Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro - Božidar Smiljanić, Louise Alder - English National Opera 2020- (Photo © Marc Brenner)
Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro - Božidar Smiljanić, Louise Alder
English National Opera 2020- (Photo © Marc Brenner)
With no elaborate setting, and no background detail of era or place, this production put strong emphasis on the characters and their interactions. And, from the opening notes of the overture, when the four doors opened and four of the opera's characters appeared then disappeared, to be replaced by others, all striking attitudes, it was clear that physical theatre played a significant role in Hill-Gibbins conception. This made the ensembles, physically very funny, and Hill-Gibbins extended this during solo moments. And doors would open and the person being sung about would appear, in a comically frozen attitude, only to disappear again. As a way of articulating the comedy of the piece, this was funny but as the opera progressed I developed the suspicion that Hill-Gibbins did not quite trust the idea of a single singer on an empty stage, and that if solo moments went on too long something would happen. Perhaps the worst example of this was having the chorus troop on and strike attitudes during the Countess' second aria, at best distracting and at worst suggesting that Hill-Gibbins did not always trust the music.

Thankfully he drew some outstanding performances from his singers, fully rounded, dramatic and musical performances. Božidar Smiljanić was making his role debut as Figaro. He is currently a Harewood Young Artist at ENO and this was a notable assumption. Smiljanic's Figaro was an engaging rogue, yet Smiljanić also brought out the serious too with a nice balance between comedy and deeper emotion. Anger simmered beneath the surface in his Act One aria, and in Act Four his jealousy was very real but also very funny. His lithe baritone seemed to take great advantage from the acoustic offered by the set, and in an evening when all the diction was good, his was exceptional.

Smiljanic was finely partnered by Louise Alder's poised and passionate Susanna. Quite serious when it came to her arias, Alder made Susanna a complex emotional figure, strong-minded with a sense of comedy, and a beautiful musical line. Her relationship with Smiljanic's Figaro was touching and, at times, funny but you felt this Susanna would often have the upper hand. Alder's voice has a richness to it so that in this soubrette role she did fill the Coliseum, and you felt the Countess (in a smaller house) beckoning.

Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro - Hanna Hip, chorus - English National Opera 2020- (Photo © Marc Brenner)
Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro - Hanna Hip, chorus - English National Opera 2020- (Photo © Marc Brenner)
Elizabeth Watts made a powerful Countess, bringing a deep intensity to her two arias, combining creamy tone with great sensibility. Watts' voice took a little time to settle and you felt the top register lacked its ideal ease. However there was a tragic depth to her portrayal, along with a sly element of self-dramatising tragedy queen; you felt there was an element of revelling in her misery. In a busy production, Watts was often still and rightly formed the centre of the Act Four conclusion. A quick shout-out for costume designer Astrid Klein for her neat solution to the Countess and Susanna's costume swapping in Act Four where the construction of their garments made the swap work easily whilst still looking elegant.

American baritone Johnathan McCullough was making his UK debut as the Count. Tonally his voice was not dissimilar to that of Smiljanic's Figaro, but McCullough made the Count a distinctive personality. He used the production's humour to bring out the Count's self-regarding nature, fundamentally a bully and not a very intelligent one, he was funny but there was always an underlying threat. And at the opening of Act Four, a dumb show with Rowan Pierce's Barbarina made explicit exactly what Barbarina had lost in her aria.

Hanna  Hipp made a wonderfully brattish Cherubino, mining a vein of androgyny which brought out his youth and uncertainty beneath the confident posing veneer. Hipp was wonderfully engaging in her Act One aria, but I am not sure that it was wise to turn the Act Two aria into a self-conscious performance. Cherubino might be singing a song he has written to the Countess, but he means it deeply.

Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro - Rowan Pierce, Božidar Smiljanić, Susan Bickley - English National Opera 2020- (Photo © Marc Brenner)
Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro - Rowan Pierce, Božidar Smiljanić, Susan Bickley
English National Opera 2020- (Photo © Marc Brenner)
Surrounding these were a strong group of supporting characters. Rowan Pierce was very much a 'butter wouldn't melt in her mouth' Barberina, lovely to look at but a tough cookie! Susan Bickley and Andrew Shore made an engaging double-act as Marcellina and Dr Bartolo, and not for the first time I regretted that Marcellina was deprived of her Act Four aria (yes I know, it holds things up). Colin Judson was a delightful piece of rough as Don Basilio (complete with a dodgy accent). Though there is strong historical precedent for giving Don Curzio a stammer, I felt that it was a bit jejeune in this day and age. Clive Bayley was the usual drunken Antonio, though he scrubbed up well for the wedding (at the opera's premiere this role was doubled with Dr Bartolo, which seems a sensible idea). Isabelle Peters and Amy Kerenza Sedgwick provided the two bridesmaids, less giggly than some and all the better for it.

The chorus does not get much to do, but Hill-Gibbins kept them busy as, though the Almaviva's palace lacked furniture it was well provided for with servants, reflecting the strong sense of hierarchy in Hill-Gibbins' production.

In the pit, Kevin John Edusei drew a finely musical account of the score from the orchestra, though I have to confess that I found his approach a little old-fashioned. Arias were sometimes a bit on the slow side, and I felt that with such a lively, fast-paced modern production having something more historically informed would be apt. Perhaps as an indication of this, we had a harpsichord for the continuo. That said, he did draw fine playing from the orchestra.

Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro - Johnathan McCullough, Susan Bickley, Colin Judson, Andrew Shore - English National Opera 2020- (Photo © Marc Brenner)
Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro - Johnathan McCullough, Susan Bickley, Colin Judson, Andrew Shore
English National Opera 2020- (Photo © Marc Brenner)
The translation used was that by Jeremy Sams, which manages to tread a nice line between colloquial demotic and poetic, and has some funny lines too. As I have said, diction was excellent and from the stalls you hardly needed the surtitles.

Not everyone will enjoy this production, but I found myself enjoying its refreshing take on which can become something of a staid classic. Hill-Gibbins had drawn strong performances from his cast, so that we really were drawn into the highs and lows, comedy and tragedy of this one crazy day.

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