Opera: The Marriage of Figaro Palace, Manchester

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Mozart's comic masterpiece elicits everything from delight to awe and even, if you're lucky, hysterics. Never boredom. Enter Caroline Gawn's new production for Opera North.

You can smell trouble from the very beginning. Mozart marked the overture presto, composing a vivid portrait of a helter-skelter, headlong dash through the follies of a day, suggesting conspiracy, surprise and unstinting energy. Not here. Throughout the evening, Richard Farnes's conducting is pedestrian.

Dramatic problems surface in the first scene, in which Figaro sizes up the marital bedroom. He seems to be taking measurements at random. No one seems to have taken the trouble to work out what he is doing. You could just about get away with this if he wasn't singing about it at the same time. In a less detailed work, it wouldn't matter; but in Figaro, detail is all.

You don't need an over-arching, governing concept to pull off musico- dramatic material of this quality. What you do need is an understanding of the class conflict at the heart of the piece and the skill to bring it out in the staging. That and the ability to mine the self-evident emotional and dramatic truth.

You almost expect stock acting in Bellini or Donizetti. Seeing it in Figaro is deeply dispiriting. In Act 1, where the sheet is pulled back to reveal the concealed Cherubino cowering in the chair, Gawn directs the Count to play anger and astonishment to the audience rather than to any of the characters. True, it gets a laugh, but if you can't get laughs in Figaro, you should change careers.

Sexual undercurrents are almost entirely absent and not just because of the unflattering costumes. Alice Coote is a suitably gauche (and strong- voiced) Cherubino, but why is she directed to play him as a 10-year-old? He's a lust-filled adolescent. Alone with the woman he worships, the scene should positively ooze sex. It doesn't.

Linda Kitchen as Susanna is pert and perky but all too often she's left stranded. Andrew Shore's bombastic Bartolo and Kevin West's oily Don Basilio combine sharp characterisation with effortless vocal flair and together with Janis Kelly's predictably fine Countess, they steal the show. But even Kelly's dark, richly dramatic singing can't survive in a vacuum.

As the Count sings at the opening of Act 3: "What on earth is going on here?" Precisely.

Touring info: 0113 244 5326