The Welsh National Opera seem fond of barbers; after touring with Sweeney last October, this week they’ve brought the friendlier Figaro to Venue Cymru. And he’s busy, too, featuring in three operas: Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, and Elena Langer’s Figaro Gets a Divorce – which only had its debut in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium last month. On Wednesday the 9th Figaro was not a barber but a servant at a stately home in Mozart’s 1786 comic opera.
Tobias Richter, the director, aimed to express the timelessness of the opera – the idea that it’s a human story. Our nature will never change, so stories of love, jealousy and seduction will hold our attention for as long as we’re here. He brought a modern twist to the performance with the addition of actors in modern dress reading the story of Figaro, just before the show began – as the audience were being seated. As the well-known feel-good overture began, these actors became the characters. And seemingly against their will, too – the music had the control.
Jeremy Sams translated Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto twenty-five years ago, and he’s still making changes to it today. The immortal human aspect of the story seems to be a key aspect for him too; “mother, I’m dying!” a heartbroken Figaro cries to his mother, using the language of a black-fingernailed teenager. These modern terms frequent the dialogue; there’s an exchange between Count Almaviva and Antonio:
“Where is that man in the garden?”
“Buggered off… if you’re begging my pardon.”
It’s the humorous exchange between two men of different classes; Antonio, the gardener, briefly forgets who he’s talking to and apologises. I don’t know the exact translation of the original libretto, but I doubt it’s as funny as Sams’ rhyming couplet.
The farcical sequences have a lot in common with Shakespeare’s comedies, and, come to think of it, modern sitcoms; with characters hiding in ridiculous places, saying the wrong thing, bumping into each other. Comedy will always be about the mistakes and general clumsiness of humans.
The set complemented the comedy, which was slightly minimalist. It consisted of two large flats – as tall as the stage area, and wide enough to cover about two thirds of the stage in the centre. They were joined at different angles for different scenes – pointing away from the audience to create the interior of the count’s house, and towards us for the garden scene. They were taken away completely for scenes requiring more space; for example, a dance. It created a perfect environment for sneaking around, as boundaries were established. Not a great many props were needed; there was a flap in the board on stage-left, which acted as a window for Cherubino’s hasty escape. For the garden scene, the night-time outdoorsy look was created mostly by the lighting.
However, regardless of impressive sets, the most important pieces in constructing an opera are the music and acting. The orchestra, led by Lothar Koenigs, couldn’t be faulted – spreading the warmth of Mozart from the overture right through. David Stout’s Figaro had control of the stage whenever he was on (despite the different vocal range, his comic persona reminded me of the Go Compare bloke), and Anna Devin’s Susanna charmingly and skilfully bounced off the other characters. Naomi O’Connell as Cherubino is also worthy of praise; I can imagine it’s difficult to cross-dress for a character who goes on to cross-dress in the show, and still portray them perfectly. It was down to the performers to combine the 18th century music with the modernised libretto, and they did it with panache, humour, and awe-inspiring professionalism.