The Marriage of Figaro, Savoy Theatre, London

Bright, breezy and a bit racy
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The Independent Culture

So Savoy Opera is up and running, in at the deep end: Rossini's Barber and Mozart's Figaro in tandem. On consecutive nights, if we so choose, we can see how Count Almaviva repays Figaro for helping him rescue Rosina from the clutches of her guardian, Doctor Bartolo. A neat conceit. But these old favourites don't get any easier to pull off and, after what can only be described as a false start with their decidedly third-rate Barber, this Figaro happily makes amends by delivering what Raymond Gubbay and his team have been promising us all along. It's like it says on the packaging: opera for first-time buyers - clear and engaging, on tap and in English.

So Savoy Opera is up and running, in at the deep end: Rossini's Barber and Mozart's Figaro in tandem. On consecutive nights, if we so choose, we can see how Count Almaviva repays Figaro for helping him rescue Rosina from the clutches of her guardian, Doctor Bartolo. A neat conceit. But these old favourites don't get any easier to pull off and, after what can only be described as a false start with their decidedly third-rate Barber, this Figaro happily makes amends by delivering what Raymond Gubbay and his team have been promising us all along. It's like it says on the packaging: opera for first-time buyers - clear and engaging, on tap and in English.

That's a good place to start. In a theatre well-suited to lyric opera where the tradition for words (as in those of WS Gilbert) were always paramount, it's refreshing to hear them delivered so crisply by this talented young company. And nobody need push to make their presence felt. This house could be a good breeding ground for young voices. And a good training ground for young audiences unaccustomed to hearing the natural voice unamplified. That's quite an adjustment from Gubbay's arena opera.

But will the Gubbay audience buy opera on a smaller scale without the pumped-up sound and the spectacle? Will they pay West End prices for touring-company production values? This is one aspect of Savoy Opera that I feel sure Gubbay will have to address. Right now, you can see the budget constraints on stage. If, as this Figaro did, you are going for period costume (by Emma Ryott) with minimalist sets (Gideon Davey), they have to be immaculate. They weren't.

That said, the rest of this review is good news for Gubbay and good news for his first-time, opera-going public. Even on opening night, there was a palpable sense of large numbers of the audience lapping up Mozart and Da Ponte for the first time. The genius of this masterpiece took hold, the plot thickened, the jokes landed. Thanks to director Matthew Richardson. He trusted the piece, kept the narrative clear, the pacing crisp. Fast, but not breathless. Rather like conductor Paul McGrath in the overture: busy, buzzy strings and forward woodwinds chortling away. Gossip and intrigue. McGrath impressed me with his unerring sense of tempo and rhythm.

So did Richardson. The amazing thing about Figaro is how its period manners still chime with modern attitudes. Jeremy Sams's pithy, witty translation helps a lot in this regard, but only because Richardson asks for, and gets, honesty and commitment from his company.

Let's hear it for Darren Jeffery's Figaro - a big lad with the jaw of Bryn Terfel and some of the voice; Tamsin Coombs's charming Susanna with her lovely, creamy tone and great diction; Doreen Curran for capturing so well the adolescent dreaminess of Cherubino; Damian Thantrey's Count, though whether the voice will ever live up to his impossibly good looks remains to be seen - or rather heard. As for, Andrea Creighton's long-suffering Countess, ideally, she needs to be the most accomplished singer on the stage. It is here, in her two classic arias, that you are reminded what it is you expect to get at the Royal Opera that you don't at the Savoy: great singing. Creighton has plenty of voice and poise, but she's still growing into this music, technically and emotionally. Experience may well transform her. Look what it did for Richard Van Allen. His wily Bartolo may no longer have the voice but he still commands attention. As does Mark Saberton's scene-stealing gardener, Antonio.

Final words for the director, who in one running gag sums up what this piece is about. Not so much Figaro's wedding as Figaro's wedding night - the bed. In act one he's measuring up for it; in act four the headboards and mattress are still chasing him round the estate. Nice one.

To 19 June (0870 166 7372)

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