The Marriage of Figaro, Coliseum, London
Exquisite Labyrinth, Southbank Centre, London

Upstairs and downstairs are equally unhappy in a 'Figaro' where all men are unmanned

Snorting and stamping, scratching his back with the bleached and polished horns of a bull, Count Almaviva is the Minotaur in Fiona Shaw's ENO production of The Marriage of Figaro.

Played out in a fast-revolving maze of staircases and corridors – its white-walled spaces now a laundry room, now a bakery, now the meat store, now a moonlit parterre – Mozart's opera becomes less a comedy of birthrights than a satire on masculinity. Bound by his word to renounce droit de seigneur, the Count faces emasculation at the hands of his servants and his wife. Bound by contract to marry Marcellina, and facing cuckoldry, Figaro is emasculated already.

Fey wit, heavy symbolism, earthy vulgarity and the creeping sourness of long-nurtured grievances collide to odd effect in Shaw's first Mozart staging. With a team of eight actors, she deftly choreographs the below-stairs industry of a vast estate, its brisk traffic echoed in the shadowy projections over designer Peter McKintosh's corrugated plastic labyrinth. The costumes are period, the trappings of indentured labour and aristocratic leisure spiked with later artefacts: a Super 8 camera for Cherubino, an early vacuum cleaner for Susanna. Oranges are arranged and removed, to remind us that we're in Spain, while the bulls' skulls and boar's carcass underline the notion of the Count as hunter and collector.

Barring the bumblebee that is trapped in a harpsichord by blind Don Basilio – its buzzing the cue for the overture's swarming semitones – Shaw's ideas have minimal impact on conductor Paul Daniel's awkwardly accented reading of the arias and ensembles. Not so in the recitatives, where Jeremy Sams's breezy translation is declaimed as though it were Beckett. Shaw's characters are certainly human. (They vomit, scratch and pee.) They're also very unhappy. Where Mozart gives us resourcefulness, Shaw gives us resentment. Stroking the blade of his razor, this is Figaro on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Never has the happy ending felt more like a temporary ceasefire.

More dangerous a Figaro than he was a Don Giovanni, Iain Paterson achieves a kind of equality with Roland Wood's petulant Count in his Act IV denunciation of the female sex. That they are brothers under the skin has already been demonstrated in their roughing up of Kathryn Rudge's rag doll Cherubino in "Non più andrai", and I doubt that Devon Guthrie's purse-lipped Susanna will enjoy married life. Even Mary Bevan's sluttish, vomiting Barbarina feels the sting of male rejection in the finale but makes enough of an impact in her single aria to make me wonder why she wasn't cast as Susanna. Stepping into the production at a few hours' notice, Elizabeth Llewellyn's Countess was the calm centre in this romantic dystopia, still hopeful. Lucy Schaufer's pert, independent Marcellina and Jonathan Best's pragmatic Bartolo complete the cast of wooers and screwers. Members of the new middle-class, they at least can leave the Almaviva maze.

Exquisite Labyrinth, the Southbank Centre's celebration of the music of Pierre Boulez, was a dizzying experience, half-wonderful, half-terrible. This is music that blows hot and cold, seducing and rebuking its listeners with hothouse trills and brusque aphorisms, the antithesis to easy-access minimalism. Across the five concerts I heard, pianists Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich, London Sinfonietta, Ensemble Intercontemporain, soprano Barbara Hannigan and Boulez himself traced his development from Notations (1945) to the Mallarmé orchestral song cycle, Pli selon pli (last revised in 1989), revealing an appetite for flamboyance, sensuality and decoration that belies the discipline of the techniques beneath each colour. Knocked out by the bravura cogency of Notations and the elegant looping of Clio Gould's performance of Anthèmes 2, I felt deep antipathy to the luxuriant glitter of Pli selon pli and the belligerent push-pull of Piano Sonata No 3 and Structures II. A titan of modernism, Boulez deserves respect. Love is another matter.

'The Marriage of Figaro' (0871 911 0200) to 10 Nov

Next Week:

Anna Picard sees Thomas Guthrie's touring production of The Fairy Queen

Classical Choice

On tour until December, Mariame Clément's Glyndebourne on Tour production of Don Pasquale opens at the company's East Sussex home this afternoon. In the first must-hear of the new Southbank season, Claudio Abbado conducts the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in Bruckner's Fifth Symphony, Royal Festival Hall, London (Mon and Tue).

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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