Music, Stage

The Marriage of Figaro review (Sydney Opera House)

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Scottish director David McVicar has dug deep for his new production of The Marriage of Figaro for Opera Australia (his second, after creating a production for Covent Garden in 2006). It’s a staging as richly detailed as Mozart’s intricate, frantic score, and it constantly cuts right to the dramatic core of the work thanks to some excellent performances.
By placing the opera in its original setting (the original setting in the 17th century, not the time the opera premiered in the late 18th century), McVicar contextualises the various relationships, and Mozart and da Ponte’s adaptation of Beaumarchais’ comedic play suddenly seems quite revolutionary.
It’s still a delightfully silly farce, with mistaken identities, mis-delivered letters and ridiculous disguises. But when Susanna (Taryn Fiebig) and Figaro (Paolo Bordogna), two lowly servants, team up with the Countess (Nicole Car) to teach the dominating, autocratic leader of their household a lesson about integrity, you do get the impression in this production that it’s a pretty daring and audacious act.
Conductor Guillaume Tourniaire sets a frenetic pace in the overture as the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra’s strings whizz and whir through one of Mozart’s most recognisable pieces for an orchestra. It sets the scene for the insanity which follows, for which Tourniaire’s conducting is an integral dramatic element.
Leading this cast is Paolo Bordogna, who seems to have boundless energy as Figaro, and Taryn Fiebig, who delivers an extraordinarily sensitive performance as Susanna. Bordogna is the life-force of this production — cunning, fast on his feet, and with a well-coloured vocal performance, driven by his interpretation of the role. His Se vuol ballare is a perfect example of how to act Mozart without compromising vocal quality.
Fiebig has played Susanna many times and her experience in the role shines through clearly here. This is not an innocent, naive Susanna, but a sophisticated woman able to hold her own in any company. And the idiosyncrasies of Fiebig’s voice — her thrilling, almost guttural lower register and the almost impossible roundness of her top — work entirely in her favour here, creating a richly textured rendition of the score.
Car, as the Countess, seems at first not the most natural vocal fit for the role. In her first aria, she seems to be working to contain her quite sizeable soprano to Mozart’s score, but she brings her trademark vocal storytelling to the fore in the third act. Her aria is a moment of quiet introspection amongst the chaos and Car and Fiebig have genuine vocal chemistry for their duet, despite their distinctive timbres.
Andrei Bondarenko makes for a surprisingly realistic Count. His menace is apparent in his assured singing and presence, and he makes a massive impact without turning to caricature.
The same can be said of  the supporting performances, who give rich, three-dimensional portrayals of their characters who can often be played broadly and just for laughs. Anna Dowsley stands out as the young page boy Cherubino (she’s become the go-to girl for “pants” roles at OA), as well as Jacqueline Dark, who has a strong comedic turn as Marcellina, again proving herself to be one of OA’s most versatile and valuable singers.
Every single line of the libretto is treated like dialogue — McVicar has clearly challenged the singers to find the intention in every moment, which makes this a remarkably cohesive piece of drama, and one which is gripping for its entire three and a half hour running time.
The design elements are also strong, with Jenny Tiramani’s sets and costumes perfectly evoking a 17th century household with glamour and sophistication, right down to the marble floor. Despite Tiramani’s efforts to make an outdoor setting work within her basic set up of two long walls, stretching far upstage, the final act set doesn’t have the same sense of realism as the first three. But the lighting by David Finn is subtly, expertly executed, with the impression that natural light is pouring into the halls of this spectacular house.
This production is a million miles away from Opera Australia’s last Figaro, directed by auteur Benedict Andrews and set in a 21st century gated estate. Andrews’ Figaro, which only saw one season, bubbled with as much wit and energy as McVicar’s but was genuinely divisive, triggering loud boos at its opening night amongst hearty applause. (Really, a performing arts company should wear it as a badge of honour if it occasionally pisses off its subscribers.)
So which is the better approach? Both should have their place at a company like OA (even if in recent years the balance has shifted more towards the traditional) and both inform each other. Directors should have the opportunity to subvert and take the canon in new directions, but without productions like McVicar’s, the audience really has no reference point for that subversion.
But McVicar works first and foremost to illuminate the piece, and by doing that with clarity makes a strong case for its contemporary relevance, exactly as written. The Marriage of Figaro is clearly a musical masterpiece and, at least in this production, a dramatic one as well.
[box]The Marriage of Figaro is at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until August 29. Featured image by Prudence Upton[/box]

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