OPERA / Slap-happy Mozart: Julian Rushton on Opera North's new Figaro

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FOR a fine production of The Marriage of Figaro, the first requisite is a lively cast of acting singers, which at Opera North can normally be relied upon. Thus Mark Lufton's Antonio, got up like a garden gnome, Donald Adams's aged and angry Bartolo, Brian Cookson's sneering Curzio, Stephen Austin's calculatedly repulsive Basilio, and Pauline Thulborn's Marcellina (sadly deprived of her aria) fill out the minor roles very well. Ann Taylor-Morley is a light-voiced Cherubino, but plays the part with infectious resilience. Jane Leslie MacKenzie allows the Countess some youthful spirits and injects real tenderness into 'Dove sono'; Gerald Finley's Figaro lacks power on low notes but is otherwise ideal. So far, so good.

The second requisite is good musical direction, here in the capable hands of Andrew Parrott, who presumably encouraged the often dramatically pointed vocal ornamentation. His idiosyncratic tempos, however, were not entirely convincing on one hearing. Typically, they are rather slow, notably in the ensembles: this allowed a welcome clarity of diction but risked undue prolongation of the situation. Movements in 6/8, though, were markedly faster than usual, which worked well in the Act 2 finale (making Figaro seem quicker on the uptake) but withheld sensuousness from the letter duet and Susanna's 'Deh vieni'.

Sadly, the latter was not fast enough to prevent any vestigial atmosphere being wrecked by the Susanna (Linda Kitchen), who was kept in constant motion, except when lying down briefly to register sexiness. A tireless but ultimately tiresome mobility, rather than her pleasant, reliable singing, most characterises this Susanna; yet she fails to land one decent slap on Figaro's face - surely the most elementary stage business. Here, a good performer is badly misdirected and the character no longer seems to be the brains behind the conspiracy that she usually is. But, then, the whole production casts doubt on whether anyone involved has brains.

For the third requisite, sensitive direction, has gone badly awry. Caroline Gawn may have been constrained by the recycling of Alison Chitty's effective 1987 designs and period costumes, but her concept of the piece, if one can call it that, apparently results from confusion of comedy with farce. She displaces Mozartian realism with absurd stylisation and unrelenting activity. The gestures themselves may have been meant to clarify the plot, but thanks to Amanda Holden's vivid, if occasionally licentious, new translation, most of the semaphore was unnecessary. And what suffers, unforgivably, is the music. The singers are gravely hampered and cannot give the performances of which they are capable.

Any idea that Figaro has anything to do with class conflict is cheerfully abandoned; instead, Aguas Frescas is apparently inhabited by zanies. Not only is Figaro impertinent to the Count; Marcellina, Bartolo and Basilio sit on the Countess's bed and wave their legs and even their bottoms. The production wastes Robert Hayward, recently Opera North's Don Giovanni and here in excellent voice, by making the Count a harmless fool. Apart from the Countess, who retains some dignity, most of what we see is in the crudest sitcom style. With this wittiest and most humane of operas, a style which might suitably be applied to Offenbach is pointless and perverse.

(Photograph omitted)