This minimalist but lively production by Joe Hill-Gibbins, first seen in Wuppertal last April, now comes to the English National Opera at the London Coliseum. Stripping away the late eighteenth-century context from The Marriage of Figaro, it replaces it with a large rectangular box containing four white doors through which people come and go.
Occasionally this rectangular box-stage rises up to allow a layer of depth on the original stage below which the characters can move forward to connect more directly with the audience. As Hill-Gibbins says, “I think these comedies work best when the performers are connected directly with the audience”.
In the event, those performers communicated their fears, anxieties and desires vividly with the audience, who loved it all. Not surprising, since this was a magnificent cast headed by ENO Harewood Young Artist Božidar Smiljanić, as a firmly-voiced Figaro with superb stage presence. Silver-voiced Louise Alder led the feminine side as his feisty Susanna, along with Elizabeth Watts as a disconsolate Countess whose soliloquies on the loss of the Count’s love were superbly delivered, with Johnathan McCullough showing mystified resolution as a notably youthful Count. Singing in the witty translation by Jeremy Sams, the diction was so good I don’t recall glancing at the surtitles more than once or twice, and there was not a weak member of the cast in that respect, helped perhaps by the acoustic of the rectangular box.
Under the lively baton of Kevin John Edusei, chief conductor of the Munich Symphony Orchestra, this was a terrific cast with Hanna Hipp as a rather pretty and irritating Cherubino, Susan Bickley and Andrew Shore two potential spoilers of firm resolution, Colin Judson hilariously pushy and camp as Don Basilio, along with the superb gravelly undertow of Clive Bayley as Antonio the gardener. Rowan Pierce as his daughter Barbarina was delightfully pretty and sexy, superbly adapted to Hill-Gibbins’s treatment of this opera as driven by sexual desire. We even had liaisons behind the closed doors briefly revealed in lurid light at one point.
The lighting itself added an air of mystery to what was otherwise a fairly bare stage, and for those familiar with more standard productions of Figaro, this is a staging that helps illuminate the emotional lives of its characters, their sexual urgings and interactions with one another. I only worry that for those new to this opera it might lack the magic of Beaumarchais’s play, whose setting before the French Revolution might make an easier introduction to what is one of Mozart’s most popular operas.
Performances continue until April 18 — details here.