Director Fiona Shaw's previous works for ENO, Riders to the Sea and Elegy for Young Lovers, both well-received by critics and the public, are rarely-staged operas, granting their director scope for interpretive license without entailing too much risk of controversy. This time Shaw has a bigger challenge, The Marriage of Figaro, a stalwart of the repertoire and an opera much older and more venerable than the other two. How would she how go about shaping this most malleable and standard of operas: would she show Figaro to us in an aspect previously unseen?
No, as it turns out. Her directorial approach to Figaro is uncontroversial and even a little bland. Which in a way this suits the work – which, characterised by Mozart's memorable, breezy music and Jeremy Sams's English translation here of the libretto, is pretty much maximally accessible. And while Shaw's laissez-faire directorial touch will be seen as a missed opportunity by some, who might have preferred an original spin on the work, others will be gladdened by the lack of controversy, letting them see as it does a familiar opera in not-unfamiliar dressing.
The stage set comprises a number of white partitions outlining the walls and confines of the Count's house. The rooms formed by these partitions are flanked on the set's extremities by stairways, and the set also contains corridors running up and down between the different parts. At various moments in the opera's action the set is revolved, showing different aspects of the building and different rooms of the house. In theory the concept is a good one: it injects pace and a shot of topsy-turvyness to proceedings, since you're never quite sure once the set begins to spin what might be revealed around the corner. In practice unfortunately it doesn't come across all that well: the bare white walls, meant to be artfully minimal, look a bit like items from an IKEA catalogue.
This world is a self-contained one, Shaw is telling us, a goldfish bowl, with the opera's action taking in a day in the life of the Count's retinue and its escapades. This is eighteenth century life, bound by a definite location and definite mores, a life especially oppresive for its female members, who are assigned a role they must grin and bear. The production idea of the house as a maze doesn't really come across; the stage set is too open for us to feel claustrophobically bound in. And the analogy of Count-as-Minotaur, grasping as he often does an ox-head skull with large horns, doesn't have weight.
Much of the time during the action there are nondescript servants lurking in the background or to the sides, bobbing about like mute side characters in a Kafka story. Servants slouch past in slow motion in the yard during the bustle of the last act, suggesting that there are different strata of time at play for the different denizens of the house, for some of whom life simply goes on as it always has. In these minor touches lies the suggestion of something edgier and beyond the run of the mill in Shaw's concept.
Shaw attempts to inject spice into proceedings by having the house strewn with different animalistic paraphernalia (with projections also of bulls above the stage). On the floor of Figaro's bedroom is sprawled a large metal snare, which the blind Don Basilio catches his guide-stick in. On one of the revolving house's walls hang three large bullock skulls, menacing in their anonymity. When in Act II the Count arrives at the door of his wife's bedroom, he is accompanied by two servants carrying a large stuffed bear.
While there is a rather obvious analogy being made between the amatory and predatory exploits of the characters, who indeed live like a herd – Figaro directs his early aria 'I'll name the tune' at an ox-head stand-in for the Count – it also gives a sheen of avant-garde to the production, echoing the surrealists' proclivity for taking objects out of their normal context and placing them somewhere totally different (something later adopted by Monty Python). But this feels like a bit of a cop out on Shaw's part: unwilling to take any proper risks with the production, she still tries to give a risqué impression. That said, the Count's erection after being propositioned by Susannah in Act III is actually a bit risqué.
Besides these production ephemera this is a solid enough show, whose standout quality is its fine cast. The principles combine strongly in the ensemble arias, particularly the last aria of Act II, and also deliver good solo spots. Iain Paterson's full-bodied Figaro is not half as cool or charismatic as he thinks he is. Roland Wood is an initially bullish but eventually humble Count. Timothy Robinson has a good comic turn as the blind Don Basilio, as does Mary Bevan as Barbarina. Devon Guthrie's Susanna, though she doesn't light up the stage, fits the downtrodden part well enough. Kathryn Rudge is an excellent Cherubino, coy and boyish as she rocks from foot to foot during the famous 'Tell me what love is'.
On the opening night Kate Valentine had unfortunately taken ill with 'a severe chest infection'. She was replaced as Countess at the last minute by the young Elizabeth Llewellyn, who subsequently stole the show. In the opening aria of Act II Llewellyn achieved a remarkably pure tone, seeming to make time slow down for a few minutes. Informing the audience before the curtain went up of Valentine's cancellation, ENO's John Berry remarked: 'Sometimes fate is very unkind,' expressing the unfortunate event in appropriately operatic terms.
By Liam Cagney
Photos: Sarah Lee