gloriously interfused antitheses

keith gallasch: mozart, the marriage of figaro, opera australia

Opera Australia, The Marriage of Figaro

Opera Australia, The Marriage of Figaro

Opera Australia, The Marriage of Figaro

THE COUNT TAKES AN AXE TO THE DOOR OF THE COUNTESS’ CLOSET, THINKING SHE HAS A LOVER HIDDEN THERE. LATER, AFTER A HUNT, HE DRAGS A DEAD STAG INTO HER ROOM. FIGARO, OVERCOME BY JEALOUSY, PLACES THE BARREL OF A SHOTGUN IN HIS MOUTH. THESE MOMENTS OF AGGRESSION, WHETHER TURNED OUTWARDS OR AGAINST THE SELF, ARE SHOCKING, HIGHLIGHTING THE MALE TYRANNY AND MISTRUST CENTRAL TO MOZART’S THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO. THEY ARE INTEGRAL TO BENEDICT ANDREWS’ SUPERB PRODUCTION FOR OPERA AUSTRALIA.

Although we can laugh it off in due course, comedy is built on the fact of danger. The precariousness of virginity, marriage, property, status, indeed life in The Marriage of Figaro needs to be felt—it is in the music, and is on the stage. This opera is breathtakingly driven by threat and risk-taking, evasion and subterfuge, lies and delusions. Yes, entrapment and escape in Figaro are richly comic and inventively realised as such by Andrews and his adroit cast, but as with the opera’s rare moments of soulful interiority and loving embrace, the comedy needs to turn dark to reveal its deep seriousness. But Andrews, ever faithful to the work, does not dwell there. Although the impact of the shattering of the closet door reverberates for some time, the stag in the boudoir quickly becomes a comic prop in the ensuing farce to reveal who’s been duped. There is little time to linger or reflect.

Peter Conrad writes of Figaro, “If the work’s dramatic concern is living space, the musical counterpart to that is breathing space…Figaro is breathlessly overworked…[It] scrambles to keep up with the restless rearrangements of society and human relationships. The excitement of Figaro is the uniquely theatrical one of watching people thinking on their feet…” (A Song of Love and Death, The Meaning of Opera (Graywolf Press, 1996). Andrews sustains that breathlessness dramatically, even making it literal—and musical—in the character of Bartolo (Conal Coad), wheezing, grabbing for his oxygen mask, the gas cylinder attached to his walking frame.

Elvira Fatykhova, Michael Lewis, 'The Marriage of Figaro

Elvira Fatykhova, Michael Lewis, ‘The Marriage of Figaro

Elvira Fatykhova, Michael Lewis, ‘The Marriage of Figaro

As for living space, Andrews and his collaborators have located the opera in a large home in a gated community of our own time. Identically dressed servants and a pair of security guards, who frequently frame the action, serve the Count (Michael Lewis) and Countess (Elvira Fatykhova). During the overture, a sense of busyness and sociability is palpable as staff arrive for work and change into their uniforms. Before long, a frantic Upstairs Downstairs interplay between social castes is in motion.

For an opera that plays on a lack of privacy, on social congestion that yields invasion and farce, that interplay is, oddly enough, heightened by the spaciousness of Ralph Myers’ design. His stark white, modernist, open spaces convey the potential for vulnerability—where can one escape? Hide? From this Andrews extracts opportunities for comic invention and makes the most of the space for enlivened movement using, for example, a clothes rack on wheels, rows of overcoats, a cleaner’s trolley, plastic chairs. True to the opera’s inclination to farce, there are doors either side to small ante-rooms with which to engender constant suspense and surprise. With a bit of theatre magic at one point, the Count leaps out of a washing machine, one of the few objects in the room. With deliberately limited means Andrews, Myers and costume designer Alice Babidge dextrously make the most of what’s at hand or worn by the performers.

The Countess’ softly curtained room, with bed and vase of (tellingly deployed) flowers, looks like an immaculate Thomas Demand creation (RT107, p44), stripped of superfluous furnishing and decoration—until the Count shatters the closet door; and, later, he drags in the stag. Like the axe, the stag seems chillingly real in the rarefied world of an austere mansion removed from any reality beyond its immediate inhabitants. The contrast between the room’s potential for serenity and refuge, textured by the warm light through its wide window and the sudden invasions by violence and mortality yields indelible images as if from the Surrealist imagination.

Joshua Bloom & Taryn Fiebig, The Marriage of Figaro

Joshua Bloom & Taryn Fiebig, The Marriage of Figaro

Joshua Bloom & Taryn Fiebig, The Marriage of Figaro

The characterisations are vivid, broadly comic but textured with the minutiae of complex emotional states. Ensemble playing is constantly responsive and the large scenes finely orchestrated—not least the Lucy Guerin-choreographed wedding dance, communal, gestural and neatly articulated with its kicks and dips at the waist, strangely familiar and alien at once, part of the other-world, beyond most us, of the Count and his 21st century contemporaries.

In the end, the performers demount the wedding paraphernalia, opening out the space not into a garden but a relatively unbordered night sky, a space of possibilities, especially of forgiveness and renewal as signalled in the shower of confetti that falls through the blue and lighting designer Nick Schlieper’s contrasting of stark interiors with this cosmic outside. As David Cairns reminds us in Mozart and His Operas (Penguin, 2007), one of a number of radical elements of the opera in its own time was that the Count must beg for forgiveness in public, just like his servant Figaro. The sudden vulnerability of power is explicit here in this vast space.

The production has everything you’d expect from this opera: the evident emotional and physical affection between Figaro (Joshua Bloom, nicely played as not too much of a charmer and with just the right touch of machismo that turns dark) and Susanna (Taryn Fiebig, a lively, determined, easy presence); the Countess’ despair; Marcellina’s (Jacqueline Dark) moral turnabout; the attraction felt by the Countess and Susanna for Cherubino (played perfectly by Ann Yun, replacing an indisposed Dominica Matthews); the emerging alliance of Susanna and the Countess, at once cunning and emotionally shared; the funny-sad revelation of Figaro’s origins; and a wickedly funny and abrasive gardener (Clifford Plumpton). The orchestra was in fine form, conducted by Anthony Legge, the libretto was delivered in Jeremy Sams’ witty translation, and the overall singing was lucid to the point of little need to attend the surtitles.

It was one of ‘those’ nights when I saw Figaro—conductor Simon Hewett and soprano Dominica Matthews were indisposed, and a technical fault brought down the fire curtain during the much-praised, opening gambit in which the rooms of the house, and the characters, are revealed successively and cinematically left to right. We didn’t get to see it. Despite this, and couple of subsequent curtain-falls, the production was an impressive one, faithful, coherent, funny and sad. As we exited, after passionate applause, on one side of me someone said, “That’s it. That’s the last time. We’ve tried our hardest.” On the other, “I’d heard bad things about what it was going to be like.I’m so glad I came”

This was a superb production, capturing at once the opera’s humour and its heart-felt seriousness, its laughter and pain, and grace, by deploying a conversational, quite realistic, closely observed dramatic tone within a deeply symbolic setting, where the impossible becomes possible and cruelty is forgiven. Andrews’ production is the perfect expression of David Cairns’ observation that “Figaro is both reality and ideal—anitheses too deeply interfused to be separated.”

Opera Australia, The Marriage of Figaro, composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto Lorenzo da Ponte, English translation Jeremy Sams, conductor Anthony Legge, director Benedict Andrews, designer Ralph Myers, costumes Alice Babidge, lighting Nick Schlieper, choreographer Lucy Guerin, Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House, Feb 6-March 24

RealTime issue #108 April-May 2012 pg. 39

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

10 April 2012