Benedict Andrews’ long-awaited, controversial production is a match made in heaven.
Lyndon Terracini’s current Opera Australia season has come in for a degree of criticism for its relative conservatism, and let’s face it: The Marriage of Figaro (in Jeremy Sams’ comprehensible, colloquial English translation) hardly seems a box office gamble. But what we have here turns out to be possibly the most interesting piece of programming this year.
The company has taken an old bums-on-seats warhorse and invited one of Australia’s boldest theatre directors to interpret it for the modern day, at the risk of alienating a proportion of their die-hard subscriber base. If this is a financial or artistic gamble for OA, I for one hope it pays off, for what Benedict Andrews, his creative team and a mostly excellent cast have given us has to be one of the most entertaining shows currently on the Australian stage.
By setting Beaumarchais’ tale of class conflict and social revolution within a Vaucluse-style mansion in a gated community, Andrews’ concept is elegantly simple and effortlessly successful. He holds a mirror up to our obsession with the closeted protection of private wealth and the subsequent exploitation of the new servant class required to maintain it. Ralph Myers’ clinical white set with its anti-romantic, artificially lowered stage ceilings and strip lighting increases the sense of claustrophobia and neatly reflects the idea that we are watching a kind of Big Brother laboratory experiment.
Sounding a little dull and worthy? Not a bit of it. There’s also Alice Babidge’s sharply observed costumes to enhance the visual impact and what ensues is a fast, furious and frequently funny depiction of life at the pointy end of Australia’s rich list.
The overture sets the scene perfectly. A group of lively, engaging individuals arrive at work only to don dreary staff uniforms while Count Almaviva voyeuristically watches them on his substantial CCTV screen. This is a man who objectifies his staff as maid or lackey, ready to be instructed or abused at whim. It is within this milieu that Figaro, a security guard, intends to marry Susanna, the Countess’ maid.
The performers dive in with tremendous enthusiasm. Chief honours must go to Taryn Fiebig, a feisty, bewitching Susanna always one step ahead of her fiancé and two steps ahead of his master. She sings the role with great panache, excellent diction and a keen sense of comic timing. Her Act 4 aria (Deh vieni non tardar in the original Italian) is most beautifully realised.
Joshua Bloom’s Figaro is an engaging, good-looking bloke and a potential sexual rival to the Count. If Bloom doesn’t rise dramatically to the heights demanded by Figaro’s jealous tendencies, he compensates with a naive “not the sharpest knife in the drawer” charm. Vocally, his resonant voice carries splendidly though at times a little more light and shade would be welcome.
Michael Lewis’s Count relies on menace over sexual allure, although the way he kisses Susanna intriguingly suggested the possibility of a former liaison. His Act 3 aria was delivered with aplomb, culminating in the dashing of his employees’ wedding cake against his own pristine walls.
As his Countess, Elvira Fatykhova sang with clarity and accuracy but her modest voice seemed ill-matched with Fiebig’s, and she needs more heft to lead the ensembles. Maybe the English translation sat awkwardly with her, but there seemed little palpable tension in the relationship with her errant husband, save for a cleverly choreographed emotional standoff as they sat in silence as Mozart’s nuptial march played offstage.
Any minor shortcomings amongst the principals are amply compensated for by a magnificent supporting cast. Conal Coad’s ailing curmudgeon of a Dr Bartolo is a masterpiece replete with wheeled walking frame and portable oxygen cylinder, great gulps of which are required to complete the da capo of his vengeance aria. Jacqueline Dark is a majestic Marcellina – a gaudy monster of the first order, all busty leopard print and more than a match for the Doctor. Her physical comedy is excellent: the moment she recognises Figaro as her son is priceless.
The third of the evening’s comic gems is Kanen Breen’s Basilio, a high-camp, pursed-lipped gossip queen. What he gets up to with the dead stag in the hysterical final ensemble of Act 2 is nobody’s business. Dominica Matthews as Cherubino – more Harry Potter than Prince Harry perhaps – threw herself into the physical challenges with abandon. Particularly memorable is the scene where she and the Count narrowly miss each other while concealing themselves in a laundry trolley, a top-loader and a pile of sheets. Vocally though, her performance was perhaps a little less beguiling.
Simon Hewett gives us an energetic reading of the score (though never perfunctory), perfectly in tune with the production. The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra play very well indeed and it is to be hoped that the occasional internal balance problems, not uncommon in the Opera House, can be ironed out during the run.
Benedict Andrews’ other interest is in exploring the still point amidst the conflict: the moment when the lover is confronted by the realisation that the loved one has betrayed him and is forced to look deep into his own heart. In this he is marginally less successful, perhaps because some of the key sexual relationships feel a little underdeveloped, or perhaps because the reflective garden scene is less suited to Myers’ striking but minimal set. Nevertheless this is an outstandingly inventive and entertaining theatrical evening which new opera-goers will love and – please believe me – seasoned fans need not fear.