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REVIEW: Marriage of Figaro at Longborough

Grant Doyle as Figaro fake-wooing Susanna (Beate Mordal), alias the Countess
Grant Doyle as Figaro fake-wooing Susanna (Beate Mordal), alias the Countess

Preston Witts reviews Le Nozze di Figaro, Longborough Festival Opera, Sunday, 26th June

SINCE the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) is one of the glories of civilisation, Longborough Festival Opera was on to a winner from the start when it chose to stage The Marriage of Figaro as part of its 2016 season.

The opera — which opened on Sunday under its Italian title of Le Nozze di Figaro — is a delicious comedy of manners adorned by some of the most beautiful melodies ever written. What is also magnificent about the opera is that it was revolutionary in an age of revolution. Composed in 1786, in the wake of the American Revolution and three years ahead of the French Revolution, it is based on the 1781 play by Pierre Beaumarchais that set alarm bells ringing in pre-revolutionary Paris.

The fact is that the work is seditious by the standards of its time. It portrays the unthinkable — humble servants outwitting their aristocratic masters. With the help of his ingenious librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart turned the Beaumarchais play into an opera of such stunning brilliance that it ranks among the greatest works of musical theatre ever created. (Three of the others are by Mozart as well — Cosi fan tutte, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute.) The most notable thing about this Longborough production of Figaro (conducted by Robert Houssart, directed by Thomas Guthrie and designed by Rhiannon Newman Brown) is that the characters all seem tailor-made for the parts they’re playing.

The Australian-born baritone Grant Doyle as Figaro has the looks and physique of a matinee idol, the Norwegian soprano Beate Mordal as his girlfriend Susanna is a petite blonde of delectable vivacity, the rich-voiced soprano Susanna Fairbairn is the long-suffering Countess Almaviva to a tee, and Benjamin Bevan is convincing in his role as the cunning but much-thwarted Count Almaviva. Mention should also be made of Anna Harvey as Cherubino, a mellifluous mezzo-soprano who commanded attention whenever she appeared on stage.

Given the political radicalism of the work (even though Da Ponte toned down the overtly revolutionary flavour of the play in order to get the opera version past the censors) the Longborough Figaro is set just before the First World War during the period between 1910 and 1914 known as the Great Unrest.

It is fitting that a work by Mozart — whose music is as timeless as the plays of Shakespeare — should be transported to a setting closer to our own age, especially as that age is currently being commemorated to mark the centenary of the greatest military conflict the world had ever known.

But Figaro is not about war but about the pressure for social change. And Mozart and Da Ponte pull it off with glorious panache – even if the main achievement of the plotters is the abolition of droit du seigneur!

Longborough’s Figaro is a spirited and exceptionally well-performed version of this comedy of errors, misunderstandings and romantic entanglements. And the music of course is gorgeous.

The Marriage of Figaro continues until 7th July. Leoš Janáček’s opera Jenůfa will run from 16th July until 23rd July and the Longborough season will end with Handel’s Alcina on 30th and 31st July.

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