“The exact nature of Kiss Me, Figaro! is difficult to explain to people” – says its author, John Ramster. As the title hints, it is loosely reminiscent of Kiss Me, Kate, based around the backstage personal dramas of an operatic touring group.
The plot is essentially: boy opera singer meets girl opera singer. Music happens. Boy is unreliable. Girl rejects boy. Boy wants girl back. Girl still can’t trust boy but he sings nicely. Sub-plots: starstruck understudy proves boy can’t be trusted; baritone discovers to no-one’s surprise (including his own) that he is gay.
The story isn’t really of that much significance. It is a series of pegs on which to hang a musing over the perennial problems of the nature of love and a miscellany of music ranging over four centuries, from Monteverdi and Mozart to the “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B”. The cast have created a set of beautifully delineated characters whose entertainment value lies purely in their personalities.
Performed with unwavering brilliance, humour, aplomb and pathos by the highly talented cast, the piece is peppered with jolly japes, wry asides and satirical spin, poking fun at various operatic artifices, devices and styles. Who could ever forget their interpretation of the “Three Little Maids” trio from The Mikado as an “arty non-gender-specific zeitgeisty piece with a zombie aesthetic”?
This musical gallimaufry reminds me of The Mikado’s Wandering Minstrel, “a thing of shreds and patches, of ballads, songs and snatches,” displaying a diversity of musical wares. Kiss Me, Figaro! seems specifically designed to showcase the wide range of talents of the cast, providing opportunities for them all to act, sing and dance in various styles, with each individual given a chance to shine. For instance, at one point four understudies unexpectedly and delightedly receive their moment in the limelight to perform Brahms Liebesleiderwaltzer, and create a scene which is both touching and hilarious.
The Merry Opera exists to widen the audience for opera and to provide experience for up-and-coming professionals. I rather doubt that a high proportion of the audience at Henley was new to opera; but they certainly enjoyed the talent on display that evening.