Grimeborn Festival, designed to bring classic operas to a new audience and resurrect rarely seen works, continues its 10th anniversary series at the Arcola Theatre with one of the most well-known operas by one of the most famous composers of all time. A brave choice. This year alone, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro has been performed by the Welsh National Opera and the Scottish National Opera, as well as Michael Grandage’s critically acclaimed version at Glyndebourne as part of their Festival 2016. Only fitting then that this anti-Glyndebourne styled festival should feature it as well, a chance to draw in a crowd and hopefully promote the smaller productions in the process.
With the original libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte modernised into English by director Lewis Reynolds, this particular version is well fitted to Grimeborn’s ethos – down to earth, accessible and appealing to a younger audience, a common problem with operas in the more grandiose venues. But the Arcola, despite being at capacity, retains a feeling of intimacy, an interaction between audience and singer that increases the impact of the resulting performance. Supported by an appropriately sized orchestra for the musical period in the reliable hands of John Jansson, the singers gradually relax into the role and, after an uncertain Act 1, are able to take advantage of the witty dialogue that Reynolds has concocted.
The show bubbles along with a tongue in cheek farcical nature almost akin to a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, which given the storyline isn’t entirely out of place. The verbal mockery of the aristocracy, demystifying and humanising them in the eyes of the lower classes, was considered outrageous at its 1784 premiere and encourages the cast to overplay their respective roles. None is more effective than the hapless youth Cherubino, who is given the feminine touch by mezzo soprano turned method actor Katie Slater. An impressive understanding of her character, Slater marries a youthful naivety and affably hopeless personality with a well-balanced vocal, one that doesn’t attempt to outperform her soprano counterparts on stage but blends harmonically within the polyphonic ensemble pieces that Mozart is famous for.
Just as well that Slater doesn’t fall into the well-trodden trap of trying to act the diva, given the vocal prowess of both Susanna and The Countess. Whilst Sofia Troncoso’s Susanna is the written star of the show and admirably performed by Troncoso, who reserves her best performance for the end, Heather Caddick steals the limelight in this version. As The Countess, matriarch of the household but subjugated by her husband, Caddick exerts her superiority within the first two bars. Deep, mature and rich, with a well-developed vibrato that supports her effortlessly delivered top notes, she provides vocal light and shade throughout the opera and equally saves her best for last. The contrast between her softer opening aria and powerful final climactic lines serves to showcase Caddick’s versatility in the role.
Every farce needs a pantomime villain and Cheyney Kent’s The Count plays the part with gusto. Whilst adding to the light-hearted atmosphere, Kent’s voice is sacrificed to a degree – less powerful or impactful than the title character as played by Dario Dungandžić, whose deep baritone anchors the production and provides gravitas when needed. As Figaro, Dungandžić knows how to play the scheming protagonist, determined to get one over on his employer in a testosterone filled battle of wits and cunning.
Given that a farce effectively invites the production to ham up every aspect, for the most part the company manage to walk the tightrope between tongue in cheek and out rightly ridiculous. Areas that don’t work are intrinsically written into the story – mistaken identities in the woods and half-arsed attempts at tomfoolery. A thoughtfully designed lighting programme by Davy Cunningham provides the setting for much of the hilarity, be it hiding in bushes or squeezing past each other in narrow bedrooms and corridors. As a central piece in the Grimeborn festivities, The Marriage of Figaro is a smart choice and a fitting jewel in the 10th anniversary crown.
The Marriage of Figaro is on until 20th August 2016. Click here for more information.