Erupting from a whispering pianissimo into a frenzy of loud accents, nothing sets a scene like the overture of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. In Patrick Mason’s stylish production, it sends servants in a Spanish palace coming and going, transforming scenery as they go. Not unlike a new opera company, they’re hard at work.
The Irish National Opera’s first new production – the company is a merger of Wide Open Opera and Opera Theatre Company – has the persuasiveness of a troupe determined to take on the repertoire. Mason is well aware that Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto is as winding as Mozart’s music. Several plots against two servants engaged to be married – Figaro (a well-judged Jonathan Lemalu) and Susanna (Tara Erraught) – are mapped with clarity.
Erraught’s whip-smart Susanna is preyed upon by her boss, the Count (Ben McAteer). A vengeful doctor (the nicely hysterical Graeme Danby) is hell-bent on forcing a marriage between his housekeeper (clever Suzanne Murphy) and Figaro. If the page Cherubino (played with psychopathic intensity by Aoife Miskelly) is believed to be the opera’s conscience, love and jealousy are only ever one modulation away.
Mason’s direction wisely leans into the comic routines of opera buffa. Visual gags such as a criminal hiding unsuspected behind a chair, or an unseen accomplice rearing her head above a dressing screen, are delivered with fresh mischief. Just as roguish, the excellent Irish Chamber Orchestra players alternate between spiralling symphony and the puppyish nudge of a lone piano. Packaged in Francis O’Connor’s tasteful stage design, it all makes for a reassuring comedy.
That’s not to say there aren’t earnest attempts to find darker shades. Máire Flavin’s excellent Countess, first seen despairing behind bars of a marriage bed as if it were a cell, yearns to belong to a more solemn production. Perhaps there, Mason would find the reproach he seeks, as the villainous philandering in Mozart’s opera turns into something more disturbing.
But by the time the production moves into its final act, it’s lost the invention and verve that shaped its earlier scenes. An exploration of misogyny also runs out of steam as, awkwardly, the Countess is celebrated for showing her woeful husband mercy. Elsewhere, Figaro hasn’t been as forgiving; Fiona Shaw’s ENO production left the Countess empowered and independent. Without greater stings, this feels more like a half-committed proposal of ideas rather than a marriage to them.
The Marriage of Figaro is at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin until April 21st. For more details, click here.