OPERA / Immaculate conceptions: Nick Kimberley finds that design is integral to two opera stagings by ENO and Opera Factory

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The Independent Culture
WE'VE read a lot recently about the death of 'concept opera', whatever that may be; no directors I've ever talked to have discussed their work in terms of concept. The phrase is critics' shorthand for 'a production with which I disagree', and it is usually a matter of design, so that individual elements - a bare light bulb, a bedstead - become emblems of all that is wrong in the opera house.

As English National Opera prepares to usher in a new management team, some have seized the opportunity to berate the company for its supposed conceptual excesses, but however you define concept opera, it is infinitely preferable to no-concept opera. Design, after all, provides the context in which the singers perform, and whatever aids expression is permitted.

Take David Pountney's 1990 production of Verdi's Macbeth, designed by Stefanos Lazaridis and now revived at the Coliseum by Julia Hollander. As the curtain rises, yes, we see an old bedstead, and worse, it is suspended a dozen feet above the stage. As the witches tell Macbeth and Banquo what life has in store for them, a figure cowers forlornly on the bed. Only as the second scene begins do we realism that this is Lady Macbeth, and she (sung by Kristine Ciesinski) is to perform the Letter Scene perched on the bed.

This is brilliant: the perilous physical situation echoes not only the difficulty of the singing, but also Lady Macbeth's feeble hold on her marriage and her life. To dismiss the bed as designer whimsy is to deny its expressive potential.

Pountney's view of the work is political: the Macbeths are mad dictators in the Ceausescu style, and their disruption of the natural order is signalled in the green blood that spurts at every moment. The hallucinatory design style may not wholly suit Lazaridis but his sets create the imaginary spaces necessary for Pountney's frenetic vision. Sadly, the first night of this revival felt unfocused. Kristine Ciesinski makes a frightening virago of Lady Macbeth, the metallic rattle in the voice wholly suiting the part, but Malcolm Donnelly is an uncharismatic Macbeth. Given Mark Elder's idiomatically charged conducting, things will surely tighten up.

David Freeman of Opera Factory has never gone for grand design gestures, preferring humanity to hydraulics. His version of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, now revived at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, explicitly confounds design expectations by showing us the back of David Roger's set for the first scene, then neatly reversing everything so that we get a real sense of inside / outside.

Freeman's view of Mozart could be described as Coitus fan tutti, and there are the usual fumblings and tumblings to create what the director sees as the necessary sexual supercharge. If that's what it takes to achieve the finely detailed ensemble that distinguishes Opera Factory, so be it (and sex is hardly irrelevant in Figaro). If one performer stands out from the collective effort, it is Janis Kelly as the Countess. The voice may be a bit small, but the personality is capacious. Mark Wigglesworth conducts swiftly and firmly, and only the final scene in the garden fails to generate laughter to balance the pathos.

In their different ways, and without wholly solving the works' problems, these two productions demonstrate that design is integral to opera, not a mere decorative extra.

Macbeth: in rep at London Coliseum, St Martin's La, London WC2 (071-836 3161); Figaro: to 12 June at QEH, South Bank Centre, London SE1 (071-928 8800)

(Photograph omitted)