Beaumarchais’ play Le Mariage de Figaro, written in 1773, was not performed in
So the omens were not good – but the reality could not have been more different!
Despite its early, controversial history, Le Nozze di Figaro remains one of the greatest and most popular operas ever written. In addition, the combination of underlying eternal truths, a convoluted plot which resolves happily, and music of both sublime beauty and irresistible wit – all this makes for a daunting challenge for any opera company. The Oxford Opera Society rose to it magnificently.
Throughout more than a quarter of a millennium, the Sheldonian Theatre has served as the principal assembly space of the University, in which all its formal public ceremonies are performed. But as a venue for opera? The Society’s production simply released the fertile imagination of the audience by using minimalist sets as suggestion (not least the ubiquitous, free-standing door), and then leaving it to the exceptionally talented cast to create the magic of make-believe, whether in the cramped marital box-room of Figaro and Susanna, the grander rooms of the Count’s palace, or its gardens at night. The invaluable translation “titles” were effectively projected in the background.
From the opening chords of the overture, the orchestra sparkled. Energy and precision were its hallmarks throughout, punctuated by appropriately melting solos from the winds, although occasionally, particularly in the more exposed piano sections, the strings would have benefitted from greater strength in numbers. This was an ensemble ready musically to take centre stage but also to morph seamlessly into either mock military mode or gentle, intimate, mandolin-like accompaniment as required, always conveying a sense of the music building sensitively under the commanding direction of Beth ‘Fitz’ Fitzpatrick.
The cast of undergraduates and recent graduates held the audience spellbound for three full hours. John Johnston, in the title role, grew in stature as his voice became accustomed to the cavernous venue, singing with spirit, determination, passion, whatever the mood or the situation demanded, always comfortably within his range, and totally convincing as the plotting schemer trying – successfully in the end – to stay one step ahead of his aristocratic adversary in order to secure his beloved bride. Sophie Akka’s Susanna took control of the action early on. Here was a character of compelling presence, whose vocal dexterity was outstanding. Whether in recitative or aria, in solos or duets (memorably when bamboozled by the Count), Akka sang with virtuosic freshness and radiance, conveying not least her loathing and distaste for the Count and all he stood for, which were memorably hidden beneath her sweet, guileless innocence when appearing unexpectedly from the locked dressing room.
Count Almaviva (Ben Gilchrist), from his first appearance, was suitably entitled both literally and metaphorically. His recitative and aria at the start of Act III (Vedrò mentr’io sospiro, felice un servo mio) revealed his truly menacing nature (the orchestra was particularly effective in support here), yet by the end, his humiliation was complete, and his begging for forgiveness from the Countess deeply moving, only momentarily overshadowed by ill-judged laughter from a section of the audience. Countess Rosina reflects on apparently lost love in her extended recitative and aria Dove sono, to which Jessica Bergman brought a rapturous, gorgeous tone, characteristic of her nobility and dignity in the role at all times. Her letter-writing duet with Susanna was itself a dramatic illustration of the changing relationship between gentry and servant, and a perfect musical blend of the two rich voices. Her forgiveness of Almaviva at the end was sublime.
Steph Garrett (Cherubino) was vocally effervescent, frustrated at being sent away to Seville, energetic in escaping into the garden, full of adolescent love, and showed exquisite timing in the famous armchair scene. Harry Reddish’s Don Basilio was the perfect caricature of a rather effete music master, unselfconsciously ostentatious in both solo and ensemble singing, and a natural comic actor. Don Bartolo and Marcellina (Ben Watkins and Chloe Fairbanks) managed the transition perfectly from their first appearances – unctuous or, in Marcellina’s case, catty in her dealings with Susanna – to their amazement on discovering that they are Figaro’s long-lost parents; Ed Freeman was a suitably cross gardener as Antonio; Elenor Vockins was a chirpy Barbarina and Aidan Atkinson the suitably over-confident lawyer Don Curzio, even loosening his tie in discomfiture at the family revelations.
The end-of-act ensembles are among the greatest moments in all opera, and here the cast excelled, whether as small ensemble or, in the incomparable Act IV finale, all eleven on stage together. Here were inspired direction (also led by the indefatigable ‘Fitz’) and stage management, which brought this “day of madness” (the alternative title to Beaumarchais’ play) to a fittingly joyful conclusion, with love, truth and forgiveness triumphing after all the complexities of the comedy that had at times been pure slapstick but could also have ended darkly.
The opera – written just three years before the French Revolution – notably reflected the social changes as absolute power seeped from the hereditary nobility and reappeared in a more benign form in another social class. By the end of this scintillating production of Figaro, we could be in no doubt, either, of the timeless nature of Mozart’s opera, nor that with superb performances like this one, the future of opera is in safe hands.