The Marriage of Figaro/ENO, Coliseum, London

Manga-comic Mozart for the next generation
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The Independent Culture

Age creeps up on us all eventually. One minute you're confident in your command of pop culture, fluent in fash-speak and deft in your def-ness. The next you're writing hurried e-mails to the pop critic trying to find out which one of Gorillaz is which! Boy, do I feel old this week. The reason? A sci-fi Figaro that has the Almaviva residence as a post-nuclear bunker, Marcellina and Bartolo semi-assimilated as Borg, Count Almaviva kitted out as the pussy magnet (or should that be magnate?) of Ali G's dreams, and Cherubino dressed up as 2D. Or Murdoc. Or Russel. Or Noodle. Wow, or whatever it is that the young people say these days.

Let's set aside for a moment the quaintness of sci-fi imagery in an age where low-tech violence has proved supreme. Let's overlook the oddness of slapstick comedy – this is a very physical production – in a culture that has grown to depend on irony. Let's ignore the fact that having no visual references from the years prior to 1990 left most of the Coliseum's audience bewildered. If Steven Stead's Manga-comic Mozart is aimed at the 15-25 age group, that's no bad thing. To judge from the response of the school party who attended ENO's opening night, this Figaro works for them. (Either that or they were text messaging each other.) And for those of us who wore flares the first time around and took our playmates' eyes out with Clackers, there's enough musical vivacity to compensate for feeling ever so slightly middle-aged.

With a young cast and a very young director, the choice of veteran Mozartian Jane Glover as conductor might be viewed as a hedging of bets; the veritable safe pair of hands. Not a bit of it. Glover's bracing overture set a tone of eager urgency. Indeed, if I have any quarrel with her Figaro it is that it can seem a little graceless in its propulsion – an impression amplified by sour tuning from the woodwinds. But set against this a clear sense of harmonic proportion and a judicious highlighting of detail in the ensembles. In fact, with a couple of notable exceptions, it's the ensemble work that is the most impressive in this production – that and the fact that every word is audible.

From Leigh Melrose's swaggeringly libidinous Count to Mark le Brocq's high-camp Don Basilio, the comedy of the baddies is hilariously broad. Claire Weston's Marcellina is a revelation to those used to seeing her cast as the frump; give this woman a Mae West costume and space enough to flounce in and she's a natural comedienne. Orla Boylan, though still suffering the after-effects of flu, is a luminous Countess: warm, generous, and a million miles from the traditionally frigid victim. As teenage sweethearts Cherubino and Barbarina, Victoria Simmonds and Claire Ormshaw excel. Simmonds is quite the sexiest Cherubino I've seen (the scene where he/she dresses up in the countess's stockings pushes Mozart's fleeting girl-on-girl fantasy to the limit) while the clear-voiced, sunny-faced Ormshaw is a stunning Barbarina. Only Christopher Maltman's strangely de-sexed Figaro and Mary Nelson's up-tight Susanna seem out of place – and out of love – but their characters are the least well served by Stead's concept.

For all the comedy there are holes in this Figaro (not least Figaro's strumpet-strewn Act IV aria, which owes more to Don Giovanni). By setting the opera in what has become a rather dated vision of post-apocalyptic life, Stead presents a social order that has more in common with Delicatessen than Beaumarchais's pre-Revolutionary satire. The Almavivas cannot simply own more than their servants, they have to be shown as having been born to it. And though I know my Next Generation from my Deep Space Nine, I just don't get the Borg reference. But, hey, the kids loved it and it's a debut the cast and their director can be justly proud of. Mozart's tough enough to withstand a little youthful indiscretion.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

'The Marriage of Figaro', English National Opera, Coliseum, London WC2 (020 7632 8300) to 7 December

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