15 Mar 2020

A new, blank-canvas Figaro at English National Opera

Making his main stage debut at ENO with this new production of The Marriage of Figaro, theatre director Joe Hill-Gibbins professes to have found it difficult to ‘develop a conceptual framework for the production to inhabit’.

Well, if you’re struggling for ideas, how about a tabula rasa? Johannes Schütz’s set, already seen at Oper Wuppertal last April, is a white cube. Four doors at the rear facilitate conveyor-belt entrances and exits. The cube is hoisted (upstairs/downstairs? - never mind that the soon-to-be-wed Figaro and Susanna have been bestowed a shabby garret room by the Count …), and lowered. It’s washed with a lurid Kermit-green glow in Act 3, then swathed in bubble-gum pink. Confused and anxious protagonists, red-stockinged domestics and straight-backed valets traverse the space beneath, disappear behind, climb stairwells to the back doors, and - in the case of a panicking Cherubino - jump from its heights onto a gymnastics crash-mat, figuratively trampling gardener Antonio’s roses.

So, Hill-Gibbins wanted to avoid ‘grand ideas about setting, design or supplementary action’. That’s all well and good - perhaps, very good. We don’t need a sumptuous architectural embodiment of the Enlightenment ethos (such as David McVicar’s ROH production marvellously supplies); nor the sort of Minotaur mazing and mythic meddling in which ENO’s last Figaro ( Fiona Shaw's 2011 production , now presumably dead and buried) indulged. But, theatre does engage all the senses, and opera-theatre is as much about what we see as what we hear. The problem with Hill-Gibbins’ blank canvas is that it eradicates all context to the point that each and every of the characters might as well be Everyman Anywhere. Neither the historical droit de seigneur nor our own #MeToo register - no bad thing, perhaps, but how are we to empathise with these characters if they are just emblematic panto types scampering round, up and below a white shoe-box?

Johnathan McCullough, © Marc Brenner.jpg Johnathan McCullough (The Count). Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

And, given the simplicity (to the point of non-existence) of the design, the actual execution of the drama is quite often fussy and overly busy. I had my teeth gritted during the Overture as the doors were flung open, characters posed for Instagram-ready selfies, and then dashed and disappeared, only to reappear ad infinitum. “It’s notBluebeard!” I wanted to shout. I could take a little commedia dell’arte ‘knowingness’, but the metatheatre quickly began to grate. So, Figaro’s resolve to outwit the Count, ‘Se vuol ballare signor contino’, witnesses the ritual dressing of the Count, with valets shuffling in with shoes and jacket, and Figaro himself adorning the over-ardent aristo with a garish neck-tie. Cherubino’s ‘Non so più’ is accompanied by a cartoonish door-opening slide show of the lives and loves of the opera’s sex-obsessed men and women. Then, there’s the problem of what’s ‘missing’ in this white vacuum: where’s the chair in which Cherubino is to hide when caught in Susanna’s room, for example? The doors which might be useful in emphasising the faux gentility/real poison of the Marcellina/Susanna duet, are less effective intrigues of the pivotal Act 1 Trio.

I was irritated most when the ‘comedy’ contradicted the music. In ‘Voi, che sapete’ Cherubino is misguided, perhaps, but utterly sincere. This is not the place for a boppy jive in which the Countess and Susanna join a ditzy adolescent in shoulder-waggling and elbow-churning. And why, if the opera is, as Hill-Gibbons professes to believe, about ‘character and relationships’, does he so often position duetting characters at opposite ends of the white cube in alienation and isolation, as they clutch and tug at the unforgiving and ungiving walls? Why does Act 2 end with some surreal body stroking and writhing? Why, if ‘supplementary action always feels superfluous’ according to our director, does the Countess have to undergo silent agonies in the suspended cube during the duet for the Count and Susanna at the start of Act 3? ‘[I]t wouldn’t work to add more ornamentation or decoration on top’, says Hill-Gribbins. Quite.

Colin Judson, Louise Alder, Johnathan McCullough.jpg Colin Judson (Don Basilio), Louise Alder (Susanna), Johnathan McCullough (The Count). Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

Thank goodness for some truly marvellous singing. Louise Alder’s Susanna is simply sublime. She nails the comedic mischief with a down-to-earth, no-nonsense realism that overcomes every directorial artifice. She’s pert and punchy, sometimes literally as Figaro finds to his peril, but also absolutely transcendent in Act 4’s ‘Deh vieni’: this aria was an absolute show-stopper. Despite being dressed in a hideously ugly shirt and then forced to don a Jimmy Krankie-style ‘military uniform’, Hanna Hipp shines as Cherubino. Elizabeth Watts isn’t necessarily a very sympathetic Countess, but given the way the production distances her, that’s perhaps not her fault, and she certainly has the technical command to convince if not beguile.

Rowan Pierce, Hanna Hipp.jpg Rowan Pierce (Barbarina), Hanna Hipp (Cherubino). Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

Božidar Smiljanić is a strong presence as Figaro, balancing wile, willingness and affection with well-projected, warm-toned candour. Johnathan McCullough’s Count has just the right mix of menace and misguided maladroitness. Colin Judson’s oleaginous Don Basilio - a sleaze ball in silk - made my skin creep, which is just as it should be! Judson - slathered in a the trademark suntan of the ‘orange people’ - demonstrated terrific diction and a wonderfully pertinent tonal nasality. I found Andrew Shore’s Bartolo far too burlesque: ‘La vendetta’, too slow and exaggerated, was a wobbly hoot. And, Clive Bayley’s Antonio did not venture beyond ‘stock’ clumsiness, though there was nothing wrong with that.

Božidar Smiljanić.jpgBožidar Smiljanić (Figaro). Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

Susan Bickley made Marcellina a character we could love rather than loathe, and to have Rowan Pierce in the role of Barbarina was an absolute joy: we cannot have to wait long for her Susanna, surely?

Kevin John Edusei made his debut in the pit. I wasn’t especially impressed. The tempi didn’t settle, too often stage and band were adrift (the raised cube probably didn’t help), and there was frequently a lack of clarity from the small orchestral forces. The continuo ensemble was, however, terrific.

At the close, the Count found himself excluded from the party as the production-defining doors slammed in his face. A metaphor perhaps for the doors that will surely close on the capital’s cultural life in the coming weeks. You’d better catch this Figaro while you can.

Claire Seymour

Figaro - Božidar Smiljanić, Susanna - Louise Alder, Count Almaviva - Johnathan McCullough, Countess - Elizabeth Watts, Cherubino - Hanna Hipp, Marcellina - Susan Bickley, Dr Bartolo - Andrew Shore, Barbarina - Rowan Pierce, Don Basilio/Don Curzio - Colin Judson, Antonio - Clive Bayley; Director - Joe Hill-Gibbins, Conductor - Kevin John Edusei, Set Designer - Johannes Schütz, Lighting Designer - Matthew Richardson, Costume Designer - Astrid Klein, Movement Director - Jenny Ogilvie, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera.

English National Opera, London Coliseum; Saturday 14th March 2020.