We appear to enter the Almaviva household through the garden. Antonio the gardener's prized carnations sit perfectly aligned across the front of the stage - the self-same carnations that Cherubino will trample on in his unscheduled exit from the Countess's bedroom in Act II. And they are by no means the only plantings in English National Opera's brand new staging of The Marriage of Figaro. That's part of the problem. The director Olivia Fuchs and designer Yannis Thavoris have been so busy bedding in the visual metaphors that you fear for the final effect.
Take the Count, a well-drawn performance from Mark Stone. His entrance in Act I - all jodhpurs and riding boots, his shirt unbuttoned in anticipation of the next "ride" - is perfect. Susanna and Figaro have good reason to be apprehensive. Portraits of his fillies (the horses, that is) adorn the walls of their newly appointed bedroom. We get the picture. The hunting metaphors are everywhere. But then in Act III where he vents his fury, with thoughts only of vengeance, the climax of his great aria is visually underscored when a huge portrait of his favourite mount (we're still talking horses) becomes animated and takes off at the gallop. Too much distraction.
Lisa Milne's Countess is similarly hijacked in her great aria of remembrance for happier times. As she beguiles us with some of the best singing of the evening, the aforementioned portrait transforms itself into a blossoming and then withering red rose. A more vulgar visual counterpoint to the perfect poise of the aria would be hard to imagine.
Indeed, just about everywhere the deftness of Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte's work is heavy-handedly underlined and underscored with a self-conscious knowingness. Part of the problem is that the central character - in Jonathan Lemalu's overly earnest performance - has no charm. Figaro must ooze charm - he's everybody's favourite wide boy. He's young and suave, and I'm afraid if you close your eyes Lemalu's voice sounds distressingly old before its time: quavery and ill-focused. And nor does Marie Arnet's well-sung Susanna redress the balance. One suspects the house is simply too big for her, but in any event she fails to make that all-important contact with her audience.
Some of the ensemble, not least in the final scene - set in a surreal forest of rose stems - was pretty lamentable. In a word, thorny.
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