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29 Nov 2018

Sir Thomas Allen directs Figaro at the Royal College of Music

The capital’s music conservatoires frequently present not only some of the best opera in London, but also some of the most interesting, and unusual, as the postgraduate students begin to build their careers by venturing across diverse operatic ground.

The Marriage of Figaro: Royal College of Music, Britten Theatre

A review by Claire Seymour

 

This autumn, though, ‘canonic’ composers have dominated the programming. The Royal Academy offered us Olivia Fuchs’ sharply observed Semele for the smart-phone age. And, now, following the Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s presentation of Così fan tutte, the Royal College of Music have similarly elected to test themselves in Mozartian waters with this charming production of The Marriage of Figaro.

In the GSMD’s Così, director Oliver Platt eschewed rococo elegance for rowdier revelry, taking us to a 1950’s hot-spot, Alfonso’s Bar , located near a US naval base in the South Pacific. Sir Thomas Allen plumps for tradition and his designer, Lottie Higlett, transforms the RCM’s Britten Theatre into Count Almaviva’s eighteenth-century chateau, taking us on a tour which starts in the tiny, dilapidated garret where Figaro and Susanna will begin married life, continues in the spacious elegance of the Countess’s boudoir, and finishes amid the graceful trellises of the garden - skilfully arranged to allow for sleight of hand and eye, as the nocturnal intriguers carry out their machinations and reconciliations bathed in designer Rory Beaton’s beautiful moonlight glow.

Both sets and costumes are superb. And, by cleverly opening up the depth of the stage when we leave the shabby attic - with its single bed (will there be room for a double, Figaro ponders?), thread-bare chair and rather forlorn mannequin upon which Susanna’s wedding veil perches expectantly - and enter the stately sumptuousness of the Countess’s bedroom, Higlett emphasises the class tensions and injustices which propel the drama. The colour schemes are beguiling, with Susanna’s simple sky-blue dress set against the rose-gold luxuries of the aristocracy. And, the cast wear their frock-coats and fineries with confidence and style; they’ve clearly worked very hard at the particulars of characterisation and the production has been meticulously rehearsed.

I struggle, however, to say anything of import or interest about Sir Thomas Allen’s direction - other than that he has evidently exercised what must be described as a ‘light touch’. Nothing wrong with that, of course - indeed, we often have cause to lament directorial dabbling and conceptual muddling. But, it’s a credit to the singers’ alertness and rapport that, especially in Acts 3 and 4, the drama was so engaging, for they seemed to have been largely left to their own devices. Allen’s only ‘intervention’, as far as I could see, is the introduction of several ‘babes-in-arms’ - or, in the case of the Countess, a babe-in-a-crib which is whipped away by a nursemaid (is that why she’s ‘off-limits’ for the Count at this time, leading to his extra-marital forays?). Among the chorus who serenade the Countess and celebrate the weddings, there are several young girls whose arms are encumbered by a swaddled child: a reminder of the welcome responsibilities of married life, or a warning perhaps that romance ends with wedlock? Certainly, the risks of indulging one’s passions are evident, as Marcellina palpitates on the bed during ‘La vendetta’ - Bartolo’s wish for revenge firing her own desire for Figaro - and the Countess almost expires from an overdose of sensual craving aroused by Cherubino’s serenading.

During the performance there was much excellent singing to admire, but I had misgivings as proceedings got underway as conductor Michael Rosewell (Director of Opera at the RCM Opera Studio) seemed determined to make a dramatic impact at the expense of idiomatic style. The overture was fast and unremittingly loud, but where was the elegance and wit of phrasing, the grace of line, the carefully delineated contrasts of colour and timbre? Accents were hammered home and the relentless tempo and temperature adversely affected the ensemble and intonation. There was little sense that the structure of the overture might articulate its own, and the opera’s, drama; impact was favoured over inference. Fortunately, though the pit was very ‘present’ throughout the performance, things settled down, the woodwind and horn tuning improved, and there was some pleasing playing as the evening progressed.

Adam Maxey has a handsome baritone, a relaxed manner, and - being of imposing height - a strong stage presence, but he needed to use greater variety of colour and dynamic to define Figaro’s character and his response to the unfolding drama more precisely. As Susanna, Julieth Lozano stole the show. Her soprano has a juicy middle range and there were flashes of real brightness at the top; she controlled the vocal line as skilfully as she commanded events. Indeed, this was not a Susanna to be messed with, as Conall O’Neill’s disconcerted Antonio discovered when she ripped his potted geranium to shreds when he frustrated her plans and wishes. But, Susanna’s charm was equally apparent and ‘Deh vieni, non tardar’ was beautifully sung.

I first enjoyed Sarah-Jane Brandon’s singing in 2010 when she performed with Mark Morris’s Dance Group in Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato at the London Coliseum, and since then she’s been a frequent and rewarding presence on London’s concert and opera stages. She seemed out of sorts, though, in ‘Porgi, amor’ which, while controlled and firm of tone, lacked Brandon’s usual sensitivity of phrasing and colour. That she was unwell was confirmed when the cause for the extended interval was revealed by an announcement that Brandon would be replaced in Acts 3 and 4 by Josephine Goddard (the Countess in the alternative cast). Goddard demonstrated impressive variety of tone and the poignancy of ‘Dove sono’ was enhanced by some lovely pianissimo nuances.

Harry Thatcher was a convincing Count, complex, angry, frustrated and repentant. He was no fool, but he was outwitted, and his growing irritation and confusion was skilfully delineated by Thatcher in Act 3, culminating in a fiery but stylish ‘Vedro mentr’io sospiro’. This was a thoughtful characterisation, one which encouraged us to both condemn and understand, and ‘Contessa perdano’ was touching. Thatcher’s elegant bearing and urbanity were tempered with genuine human feeling, and we were inclined to forgive this Count for his frailties.

Lauren Joyanne Morris has a full, rich mezzo but she didn’t entirely persuade me in the role of Cherubino. A little too tall to be gamine, Morris did not seem to have determined precisely how to convey the page’s adolescent yearning - perhaps a little more direction would have helped. She sang strongly, but I’d have preferred a lighter approach, particularly in ‘Non so più’ which needs to sound both youthfully innocent and slightly breathless with a passion barely understood. Poppy Shotts was excellent as Barbarina, and her Act 4 aria ‘L’ho perduta, me meschina’ was confident and poised.

The comic trio entered into the Christmas-panto spirit, though the young singers inevitably found it a challenge to really convince as aged intriguers. Katy Thomson defined Marcellina strongly, though occasionally over-did the Hyacinth Bucket caricature. Timothy Edlin was terrific as Bartolo, relishing ‘La vendetta’ - and he was more dramatically persuasive when he removed his tricorn hat and we could see Bartolo’s bald pate and stringy curls. Joel Williams, as Basilio, completed the fine cast.

This was a long but enjoyable performance. The cast worked incredibly hard, to good effect, and the drama grew in charm and shine as the evening progressed. Tradition proved a real treat.

Claire Seymour

Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro

Count Almaviva - Harry Thatcher, Countess Rosina - Sarah-Jane Brandon/Josephine Goddard, Susanna - Julieth Lozano, Figaro - Adam Maxey, Cherubino - Lauren Joyanne Morris, Marcellina - Katy Thomson, Bartolo - Timothy Edlin, Basilio - Joel Williams, Don Curzio - Samuel Jenkins, Barbarina - Poppy Shotts, Antonio - Conall O’Neill, Bridesmaid 1/Chorus - Camilla Harris, Bridesmaid 2/Chorus - Jessica Cale; Director - Sir Thomas Allen, Conductor - Michael Rosewell, Designer - Lottie Higlett, Lighting Designer - Rory Beaton, Choreographer - Kate Flatt, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal College of Music Opera Studio.

The Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London; Monday 26th November 2018.

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