Following Don Giovanni in May, Opera Australia’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro continues the Mozart/Da Ponte/McVicar connection in fine style. To have these two works of genius on the stage of the State Theatre within six months provides an opportunity to enjoy not only the products of the greatest operatic collaboration of all time but to gain further insight into the imagination of their director, Sir David McVicar.
As a drama about an incorrigible rake Don Giovanni is bound to be dark and McVicar’s direction emphasised the more unsavoury aspects of human nature. Designer Robert Jones further intensified the spectacle of an unholy union between sex and death with potent images of mortality and decay. Most of the characters, in fact, appeared to be contaminated by some brand of corruption.
The Marriage of Figaro also features a sexual predator and possibly one in the making, but as an opera buffa the balance is towards comedy as sharp wits and virtue conquer lust, pride and class privilege. All is forgiven in a happy ending where love is celebrated in the marriage of Figaro and Susanna.
The brilliant set and costume designs by Jenny Tiramani are major contributors to the success of this production and in themselves merit a night at this opera. David Finn’s atmospheric lighting design adds energy and interest. Appreciative applause erupted on the opening night as the front curtain was drawn to reveal a light-flooded hall of the castle at the beginning of Act 3. The inspired combination of direction, costume design and lighting created some astonishingly beautiful moments. Even those unfamiliar with Vermeer’s recurring gold satin garment worn by many of his female subjects would have been moved by the striking figure of the Countess as she stood in profile before the large windows. The choice of a seventeenth century setting also produced costumes that echoed paintings by Rembrandt. Doubtless the delicious confection that was Susanna’s wedding dress also had an historical reference point.
Equally delicious was Taryn Fiebig’s Susanna. Always a delightful performer, with a strong rounded voice, animated acting and the physical charm that has been a major advertising tool for promoting this opera, she sang what is one of the longest female roles in the operatic repertoire with distinction. McVicar’s decision to place her in front of the artfully patched front scrim curtain as a departure from the norm for her Act 4 aria could not have been more appropriate. Deh vieni, non tardar is a jewel that Fiebig polished to a warm radiance. From the vantage point of the side of the Circle on opening night, it seemed that the stage remained unlit, however, so that some of the implications and emotional shifts were lost on opening night. From the Stalls on my subsequent viewing the figures of the Countess and Figaro could be seen through the cloth.
As her less astute other half, Andrew Jones was a very creditable Figaro. His bass baritone is appealingly warm and juicy and he brought unflagging vitality to the role, seeming even more at ease on the repeated performance.
Shane Lowrencev is so noted for his comic gifts that it was difficult to envisage him in the more serious role of Count Almaviva. As it was, he managed to tread a fine line by respecting opera buffa tone without hamming it up unduly. His Act 3 entrance was a fantastic blend of serious and absurd as he appeared in his super glorious red and gold striped costume holding his dead hunted hare at arms length – priceless. Lowrencev goes from strength to strength vocally, proving to be an outstanding member of Opera Australia’s core singers.
The other male members of the cast: Richard Anderson (Dr Bartolo), Adrian Tamburini (Antonio), Benjamin Rasheed (Don Basilio) and Brad Cooper (Don Curzio) all performed well, contributing effectively to the various ensembles. The final ensemble with all eleven voices made a brilliant conclusion to the opera.
Of the other female members of the cast, Jane Ede made a very lovely Countess Almaviva. The Rosina of Beaumarchais’ first play, famously set by Rosina is a quite different character from the disillusioned Countess of his second play. Jane Ede managed to move between the sadness of her betrayal by the Count and playfulness as she plotted with Susanna and flirted with Cherubino with unaffected grace and dignity. There were many moments when her voice floated beautifully with her Dove sono being a particular pleasure. The letter duet with Susanna was simply gorgeous and it must have been difficult for Figaro to distinguish his beloved’s voice so well matched were these two.
Sian Pendry threw herself into the excesses of Cherubino’s infatuation with womankind, making the most of the comic potential offered by McVicar’s direction and singing strongly and passionately. As Barbarina, the girl Cherubino gets in the end, Eva Kong was as sweet and pert in voice and manner as you could wish.
McVicar’s take on the relationship between Marcellina and Dr Bartolo may have been problematic for some. Even with beds looming appropriately large in this production, it was still a jolt to see these two rekindle their lust as they did. At least Roxane Hislop has the attributes to be convincing as the object of passion. She looks good (any aging makeup was not apparent from a distance) and her rich, steady voice puts her in a vocal class above many Marcellinas.
As servants involving themselves in the lives of those above them, lurking behind doors and with ears pressed to keyholes or thanking their lord and master for relinquishing his droit de seigneur and celebrating the eponymous union, the chorus sang well and moved efficiently, following McVicar’s masterful choreography.
Orchestra Victoria seemed a little subdued at times, but gave a neat and accomplished performance under Anthony Legge’s baton.
This is a production that deserves to be maintained in Opera Australia’s repertoire for some time to come. The story itself still has a disquieting relevance, the music is sublime, and the direction and design inspired. You would also be hard pressed to find more satisfying singer/actors.
Reviewer Heather Leviston attended two performances of this Opera Australia production at the Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre, on November 12 and 17.