OPERA / Air and graces: Nick Kimberley on Midsummer Opera's Marriage of Figaro in an Ealing garden

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The Independent Culture
Ealing and comedy go together. The finale of The Marrige of Figaro calls for a garden. Hardly surprising, then, that Midsummer Opera, in its 10th season of operas in an Ealing garden, should present Mozart's comedy. Despite the project's professionalism, it's hard not to imagine someone jumping up at a garden party and shouting, 'Hey, let's dress up] Let's do an opera]' We are so clearly in suburbia, not Sevilla. The impression lingers through the overture, played by a 10-piece ensemble directed from the electric keyboard by David Roblou. The open-air acoustic; the ultra-slim sound; Roblou's sprightly tempo, all lend an air of toy-town Mozart.

And then Gwion Thomas emerges in period costume and the imagination fires. Suddenly we have theatre. As Thomas's Figaro and Kathleen Tynan's pert, slightly tart (not tarty) Susannah offer rather different views of a servant's duty, Ealing retreats. We may not be in Seville, but we are immediately engaged by this young couple's fight for the sanctity of their imminent marriage. That the audience involves itself so readily is thanks in no small part to Amanda Holden's imaginative translation, delivered with absolute clarity.

Alan Privett's production, in Paul Wilkins' designs, ties itself in a few unnecessary knots trying to imitate Fragonard's paintings, with pictures in frames littered everywhere. But at least the frames provided perspectives and vistas, economical divisions of the acting space. Oddly, the setting worked least well in the garden scene, although by then the fading light had added its own ambience.

The score suffered cuts but they mattered little. Nor, in context, did the loss of so much of the orchestra. After the overture's cruel exposure, balance improved as the voices added their weight. The slimline instrumentation allowed the singers greater opportunities, and they made the most of the chance to communicate in detail rather than in general outline.

Thomas's Figaro is venomously cunning, although the enunciation is a shade too fastidious, lieder-fashion. The weight of the voice is well-matched to Josik Koc's Count, a bundle of repressed sexual energy whose whole body becomes erect at the merest hint of sexual dalliance. An open-air acoustic does few favours for bel canto, and dramatic and musical inspiration flags during the final act. In the end, there are limits to what such a presentation can achieve, and Midsummer Opera may have reached those limits - the company is considering going indoors permanently. Yet blessed with a balmy evening, an eager cast and a willing audience, this Figaro went some way to dispelling the suspicion that these events can only ever be charming.

Last performance tonight at 90, Grange Road, London W5 (Booking: 081-579 7477)