Reviews BristolNationalReviews Published 21 March 2016

Review: Figaro Gets A Divorce at Bristol Hippodrome

Bristol Hippodrome ⋄ 17th March 2016

Patent leather and feather dusters send the WNO’s new opera rapidly down hill.

Rosemary Waugh
Figaro Gets a Divorce at the Bristol Hippodrome. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith.

Figaro Gets a Divorce at the Bristol Hippodrome. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith.

Although far less known, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the author of the original plays behind Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro actually wrote a third play featuring Figaro and the Almaviva family. This third work, La Mère coupable (The Guilty Mother) was intended to be a drama rather than a comedy like the preceding two and, following a successful run of fifteen shows across six weeks, was mainly forgotten by theatrical history.

The third part of the Welsh National Opera’s Figaro Forever season, a new work composed by Elena Langer with a libretto by David Pountney entitled Figaro Gets a Divorce, is indeed not actually completely new. Instead it borrows heavily from Beaumarchais’ forgotten third piece of the Figaro jigsaw, leaving the main plot of revelations about a love-child and are-they-aren’t-they siblings mainly intact.

Choosing to adapt and revisit a largely side-lined piece of work is risky business; sometimes history erased you for a reason and as with seeing a piece of road kill, it’s not always wise to ask why no one thought to make it into taxidermy. Mentioning the source material here is also important because one of the most substantial flaws of this work resides in the use of a wispy narrative engendering limited audience investment, along with the pitter-patter of tiny plot holes perforating the chain of events.

In fact, Figaro III suffers from the classic malady of a being a sequel that should never have been made. Once-beloved characters are wheeled out only to throw into confusion why you ever liked them in the first place and, more than that, a genuinely unpleasant cynicism prevails. One reason for the limited success of Beaumarchais’ original may be that it erased a key reason for why the other two Figaro operas are well-liked: comedy. In Figaro Gets a Divorce, the problem is not just that it isn’t funny, it’s that it appears to revel in taking characters previously loved and turning them into sleazy, grimy and fundamentally unhappy versions of their former selves. Watching this opera is like watching someone pulling up the first spring crocuses and then rolling in the disrupted mud that remains.

The historical basis for the work is also important with regard to content. When material that could easily be considered offensive within a modern context is staged today, one excuse given is that it is historically accurate or true to the playwright’s views at the time. This is always a slippery fish to ignore the stink of, yet at least contains some kernel of an excuse. It is somewhat harder to justify the inclusion of some thoroughly cringe-worthy sexism of a sub-Carry On level in a production written post-millennium. A painfully elongated number about ‘the maid is in the pantry and the master’s in the maid’ whilst she jerks around like a music-box sex doll in patent leather is so crass it leaves the viewer in a numb void, like the disappointment of tearing back the foil to find there is no trifle in the pot.

A few shoe-horned in lines about ‘not being the weak woman you think I am’ and the fact that this dreary production is indeed part-written by a woman, do little to claw this show back post-feather duster dance.

As with The Barber of Seville earlier in the week, it is notable how little the main man actually appears. Rather than Figaro Forever, it is more Figaro Intermittently, the original schism between him and Susanna, and his departure from the Almavivas, presumably occurs during a gap in the space-time continuum, as it certainly wasn’t found on stage.

In terms of setting, it is a confusing amalgamation of every great event of 20th century Europe, as though the collected works of Eric Hobsbawn have been placed in a blender. Fascists and revolutionaries get slammed into one, whilst the Italian word for ‘revolution’ is spelled out with a pseudo-Russian backwards ‘R’. There are some Nazified fashion statements before a last minute desire to face death as a married couple brings the Ceausescus’ final moments on earth into the theatre.

One redeeming feature of this production is Ralph Koltai’s set design. Unlike in The Barber of Seville, in this opera the multi-panelled and movable set really comes into its own. The use of stagehands rather than the cast to move the scenery helps considerably. The constant alterations to the hidden side of the panels adds a neat voilà element to each reveal. The backdrop artwork of mountains in a grey haze brings a beauty to the stage absent in other parts of the show.

Similarly, the intense blues into purple of the lighting by Linus Fellbom contrasts well with Koltai’s muted pallet. Whilst costumes by Sue Blane are very stylishly designed and, in this element of the show, the historical eclecticism of an Edwardian shooting party lad canoodling his swinging 60s girlfriend as the mother in pure Viennese pre-war sophistication looks on, somehow works.

For a very visually attractive production and one with the fundamentally good idea of a Figaro-linked season behind it, it is a shame that this opera was so lacking in other areas. The decision to return to an historical work that never quite worked out originally is perhaps a significant part of these problems. The decision to also conclude two operas most famous for being light-hearted and joyful with a shovel of cynicism, introduced a vital flaw that in the end was too much to surmount.

For more of the WNO’s programme, click here


Rosemary Waugh

Rosemary is a freelance arts and theatre journalist, who regularly writes for Time Out and The Stage.

Review: Figaro Gets A Divorce at Bristol Hippodrome Show Info

Directed by David Pountney

Written by David Pountney (Librettist)

Cast includes Rhian Lois, Elizabeth Watts, Maire Arnet, David Stout, Mark Stone, Naomi O'Connell, Alan Oke, Andrew Watts, Amanda Baldwin and Helen Jarmany

Original Music Elena Langer



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