When big was bad and small was just terrific

Le Nozze di Figaro/WNO | New Theatre, Cardiff Tete a Tete Shorts | Bridwell Theatre, London
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From Shakespeare to When Harry met Sally, the romantic comedy has revolved around the symmetrical mismatching and re-pairing of apparently interchangeable lovers. (How else do you underline the mystery of true love than by showing that finding "the one" is more complicated than he or she having nice teeth, a good career and a passable sense of humour.) On the whole it's harder to find four interchangeably attractive leads in an opera than on stage or screen - though a truly great voice is some compensation for a truly great girth - but in Le Nozze di Figaro it's imperative.

From Shakespeare to When Harry met Sally, the romantic comedy has revolved around the symmetrical mismatching and re-pairing of apparently interchangeable lovers. (How else do you underline the mystery of true love than by showing that finding "the one" is more complicated than he or she having nice teeth, a good career and a passable sense of humour.) On the whole it's harder to find four interchangeably attractive leads in an opera than on stage or screen - though a truly great voice is some compensation for a truly great girth - but in Le Nozze di Figaro it's imperative.

Before I get accused of being a body-fascist, this isn't just because it's nice to see the beautiful people on stage (four equally well-covered singers would do just fine). Nor is it just because Figaro makes more than a nod to the traditions of romantic comedy. It's because the opera revolves around the notion of equality - a revolutionary concept for a revolutionary age - and the idea that for 18th-century man, the right to self-determination is an accident of birth.

Figaro has no golden couple on whom our main focus rests. In this romance, the Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher roles are right up there with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. There is a supporting cast - containing two further sets of lovers for plot expediency - and four leads; a rejected countess, a bored count, Figaro (his valet), and his bride Susanna (her maid). The four main characters have to be properly balanced - dramatically, physically, vocally and stylistically - or the sexual and political tensions between them cannot work. Bluntly put, it has to be conceivable that any one of the four might desire to bed the others, that any one might be the master, any one the servant. For these four characters it is a true ensemble piece. Or so I thought until I went to Cardiff.

None of the performers in Welsh National Opera's new production of Figaro were bad, they were simply grossly ill-matched. Since when have Figaro (Nicola Ulivieri), Susanna (Nuccia Focile) and Countess Almaviva (Geraldine McGreevy) been supporting roles? Since when has this opera been a star-vehicle?

Since last Saturday. Courtesy of one larger-than-life performer, Mozart's romantic comedy/class satire/examination of fidelity after the death of sexual attraction was turned into a broadly comic priapic farce. Marriage of Figaro? Let's just call this one Carry On Counting.

Watching Gidon Saks' bumptious, lecherous, rubbery and remarkably loud Count Almaviva at play, I suddenly had an idea of what Kelsey Grammer's Macbeth must have been like. He mugged, he leered, he boomed, he bumped into things. Ho ho. Hogging the stage doesn't begin to cover it. A bull in a viagra shop just might.

Every now and then there was a glimpse of producer Neil Armfield's intended intimacy; in the lighting that pulled tight and low to private dialogue and in the small details of wedding party power-games. But the frustration and pain in the Alamvivas' failing marriage was barely touched upon and the specific social structure of this semi-feudal 18th-century estate was virtually ignored.

Though a personable Ulivieri, a sharply pretty Focile, and most of the rest of the cast did their damnedest to keep things on track with neat, careful acting and sensitive phrasing, by the end of Act I Saks' high jinks had totally hijacked the opera. Poor McGreevy - not the most confident actress even in her soliloquies - could do little but stand still and watch.

It was the kind of production that you dream of tweaking with computerised special effects. You could artificially enhance Ulivieri's pinched top notes to match the attractive glow of the rest of his voice. You could remove the 20th-century turquoise hairdryer in the Countess's brocade and brown-paper bedroom - every scene bar one was inexplicably swathed in fabric that resembled brown wrapping paper - and programme her not to curtsey to the servants. You could edit out the strangely literate peasants on the Almaviva estate (having underlined their lack of hygiene it was odd to see them singing from hymn sheets). You could expand the scenes with Anne Mason (Marcellina) and Natalie Christie (Barbarina) so that they had roles whose size reflected their characterful, alert singing. Above all, you could reduce Saks by 10 per cent, making him roughly the same size and volume as the rest of the cast.

Despite the comedic carnage on stage, the Welsh National Opera orchestra showed yet again how good they are at adapting to Baroque sensibilities. Every line was carefully characterised, not just through the melodic lines but in the nicely articulated inner parts and smartly phrased bass. Conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini showed considerable bravery in going against the standard tempo relations in the accompanied recitatives. His innovations didn't always come off but when they did the results were superbly atune to the ebb and flow of Da Ponte's libretto and I'd enjoy hearing more Mozart from this Baroque specialist.

But I spent far too much time in this production being worried by Saks and thinking about the brown paper. One of the audience asked me what I thought it meant and having ruled out a Sound of Music theme (there were no kittens or snowflakes) or any allusion to period design, I was forced to the conclusion that a job lot of wrapping paper must simply have been a cheap way to dress the set. So much for necessity being the mother of invention. Strapped for cash as WNO may well be after their lavish and exciting Queen of Spades, I think they could have done better.

The minimalism of Tête à Tête's 1999 production Shorts may have been dictated by monetary considerations, but director Bill Bankes-Jones and designer Tim Meacock bring off their contemporary music showcase with such enviable élan that it seems as if three well-matched singers, a clarinet, a harp, a cello, a wheelie-bin and several dozen music stands are an ideal to which all production teams might aspire.

The company took us through five specially commissioned operas, from a bitchy Patrick Marber-style break-up in which neither sex emerges with dignity (Des Oliver's Miss Treat) to the many and delicious charms of coprophilia in Seven Tons of Dung (David Bruce's witty inversion of Kafka's Metamorphosis).

Through the evening we were variously amused (by the John Adams-style trainspotters' duet in Julian Grant's cleverly scored Platform 10), shocked (by the juxtaposition of anti-war polemic against a sampled 4/4 loop of barking and growling in Gary Carpenter's satirical scena Doggone) and moved (by the madness of bereavement and exhaustion in Elfyn Jones' Roremesque The Nightjar).

Bankes-Jones' direction was superb throughout, Orlando Jopling's conducting was clean, incisive and sensible and the singers (Damian Thantrey, Nicholas Sears and Hilary Dolamore) and players all worked incredibly hard - and effectively - to entertain a tiny audience in the tiny Bridewell Theatre.

Did I miss the trappings of grand opera? The costumes? The sets? The stars? Did I hell! Go, please go. This is where the real music making is happening.

'Le Nozze di Figaro', WNO, Cardiff New Theatre (029 2087 8889) to March 2. Shorts, Bridewell Theatre, EC1 (020 7353 0259) to February 24

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