"This is very perplexing," says the Count at the beginning of act three of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, and the roar of sympathetic laughter that went up from the audience at the London Coliseum on opening night rather more than suggested that they too were none the wiser. Steven Stead's absurdist staging might do nicely for university rag week but it has no business in the repertoire of a major opera company. It's badly conceived, badly executed, badly designed, badly lit. And as if that wasn't enough badness for one night, the whole sorry farrago would seem to have dragged down the musical standards with it.
So let's see if I've got this right. Sometime, somewhere in the comic-strip future of our existence, long after society's natural orders have broken down, a kind of Gormenghast has sprung up from the debris of civilisation. The debris is there for all to see in what might loosely be termed Matthew Deely's design: a collection of ephemera from ENO's prop shop. For Steptoe and Son read "Figaro and Co".
We are "below stairs" in every sense. And at the top of them, a steel door straight out of Blade Runner and/or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (I do hope you're keeping up with the references) separates the lower orders from the ruling classes. So nothing's really changed from the good old bad old days.
The Count (Leigh Melrose) is an aristocratic arch-villain-cum-Satan (a kind of Darryl Van Horne if you've seen The Witches of Eastwick). He holds court in a winged-chair set in a blood-shot chamber. His wife wanders about in what looks to be her wedding dress in remembrance of things past.
I suppose if there is a point to Stead's staging it lies in its very subversiveness. A touch of anarchy. Mozart and Da Ponte dabbled with it in their day. They enjoyed slipping the rug from beneath their audience, turning expectation on its head. So does Stead.
If I tell you that in act two Susanna hides not in the Countess's dressing room but in an old fridge, your response will determine just how much you will hate (or possibly love) this show. To love it, you must cast aside the stylish, carefully crafted, bitter-sweet comedy of manners and prepare to go well beyond the bounds of Jeremy Sams liberating translation into the mad realms of the absurd.
When Cherubino jumps from the Countess's window, theatrical license has her jump into the orchestra pit. In a rare flash of wit, Stead turns Antonio, the gardener, into the cellist Cherubino presumably landed on. Andrew Shore (now there's luxury casting) milks the cameo for all it's worth.
Elsewhere, we are not always so fortunate. There's a plucky, sexy, scene-stealing Cherubino from Victoria Simmonds. Her singing is a little short-winded but she makes something genuinely here and now of the cross-dressing. Christopher Maltman's Figaro is also very here and now, very sexy, but even he sounded under-par. I wonder how he felt about having his final act tirade shamefully upstaged by some superfluous business involving ladies of the night. Another instance of the director not trusting in the brilliance of the libretto.
The rest was fairly dispiriting. Mary Nelson's Susanna had her moments but the joylessness of the portrayal was a problem for her. Orla Boylan's problems were all vocal and rather more worrying, given her previous promise. The Countess's first aria was frankly threadbare, the voice uneven, the top distressingly tight. She rallied, but not enough to allay fears.
Claire Weston's Marcellina must have been wishing she'd lost her last act aria. As for the conducting, Jane Glover's contribution was nothing special and in this hard-to-tame acoustic, it needs to be. All in all, pretty awful. The endless search for novelty arriving at yet another dead-end.
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