In the final act of Olivia Fuchs's production of The Marriage of Figaro, Count Almaviva's garden is revealed as a forest of giant flower stems: virid, succulent, seductive, and spiked with vicious thorns. In this surreal landscape, those who are old before their time, whether naturally or by force of social circumstance, indulge those who will never grow up, granting forgiveness in the face of repeated injury. Though they - and we - know that their happiness will be as short-lived as the balloons drfting up to the ceiling, it's a beautiful, poignant moment. But why is it the only one?
Fuchs is a spirited, fastidious and imaginative director, skilled at weaving small cruelties into the most calorific fantasies (Mayskaya Noch) and highlighting the tendernesses in otherwise brutal tragedies (Macbeth, Rusalka). But something is badly awry with her debut production for English National Opera. Not all of it is her fault, for this is a cast with less sexual chemistry than a car-maintenance manual. The pairing of Jonathan Lemalu's plump, prissy, pompous Figaro with Marie Arnet's cool, gentle Susanna is only marginally less improbable than that of Mark Stone's swaggering, juvenile Count and Lisa Milne's Queen Motherly Countess. Even Victoria Simmonds's Cherubino is undersexed and inhibited, and Claire De Bono's Barbarina excruciatingly sharp and coy.
Like Stone and Milne, surrealism and social critique are unlikely bed-fellows. Yannis Thavoris's Courtauldesque 1930s country-house set draws gross contrasts between the Count and Countess's vast suites and the tiny box-room - here literally a box - that will house Figaro and Susanna's wedding-bed. Goose feathers fall to the ground, bells tinkle below-stairs, roses bloom and decay in time-lapse photography, maids flirt with valets, and Stubbs horses canter in their frames. Sub-plots and back-stories abound. The box-room is an empty nursery while the rigid rows of carnations that serve as the rose garden are briefly bathed in crimson, becoming Flanders poppies during "Non piu andrai." (Figaro as a shell-shocked Tommy?). This wouldn't matter a jot were the singers positioned so that (a) they are audible, (b) they can move, and (c) they can keep time with the orchestra.
Here too there are problems. Approximately half of the players sound excited by conductor Roland Böer's ideas, while the other half appear to be sulking over having to play outside their late-Romantic comfort-zone. Böer picks some hazardous tempi and demands detailed articulation, but, like Fuchs, fails to maintain an argument. His forte- piano continuo playing is superb, wth snippets of Mozart's sonatas and fantasias woven seamlessly in, but this is not in itself enough to recommend the musical performance. Though much of the solo singing is distinguished, the ensembles rarely gel, while Lemalu makes the Home Counties naughtinesses of Jeremy Sams's English translation sound as varicose as an episode of Terry and June. Despite the excellent support of Jonathan Veira (Bartolo) and Diana Montague (Marcellina), who are easily the sexiest and most sympathetic couple on stage, and some cleverly individuated chorus direction, this is a dreadfully long and uninvolving evening.
"If you've ever loved and been left, you'll know how this opera feels" runs the poster for La voix humaine. Commonsense aside - how can an opera feel anything? - this slick one-liner should ensure a full house for Deborah Warner's touring production. Still, I am unconvinced that Cocteau's mascara-streaked monologue has any claim to universality. Though Tom Pye's designs feature contemporary details such as a bottle of Toilet Duck behind the bidet, the shoulder-padded shadows of Bette Davies and Joan Crawford loom large and lugubrious over Poulenc's pink-gold, period- specific, vaseline-lensed orchestration and Cocteau's verbal voguing. As with many of the heroines of the great "women's movies" of the 1940s and 50s, Elle (Joan Rodgers) is not a woman at all. She's a man in drag. Which, coming from the composer of Dialogues des Carmelites, is disappointing.
As Elle/Lui, Rodgers sings bravely and tenderly, with sweetness and candour, and with a dignity that is quite at odds with Warner's pill-popping, phone-bashing, self-strangling, gin-glugging, wrist-slashing, self-hating scena. While the men at the first performance snuffled into their hankies, perhaps in memory of their own folies d'amour, I could feel their wives and girlfriends bristling with indignation at the improbability of Elle's friend Martha leaving her alone on the eve of her ex's wedding. (Some friend!)
Had Poulenc not drawn this misconceived monologue to a close at just over 45 minutes, I half-suspect there would have been a mass intervention of Yorkshire matrons, calling for Rodgers to pull herself together, change her underwear for a matching set, tidy up her boudoir, squirt some Toilet Duck down the bidet, put on some lippy, hit one of Leeds's many karaoke bars, and belt out a chorus of "I will survive!" instead. It's a magnificent performance from Rodgers, and a promising one from cellist-turned-conductor Paul Watkins, but really... What a silly, silly opera!
* 'The Marriage of Figaro' to 23 Nov;
'La voix humaine', Theatre Royal, Nottingham (0115 989 5555), 16 Nov then touringReuse content