...every gesture carefully conceived, every word audible, and every note precise and true

Opera October 2010

A comfortingly familiar title, a cast-list of household characters, a well-known, if improbably convoluted, tale; and, the expectant audience were indeed treated to a gorgeous production of Figaro – but not quite ‘as they knew it’.

Renowned for unearthing forgotten treasures from the Classical era, Bampton Classical Opera have turned their attention to an ‘alternative’ account of Figaro’s complicated journey to married bliss, composed in 1799 by the Portuguese composer, Marcos Portugal.

The archaeological graft was undoubtedly worth the effort.  Portugal’s score may lack Mozart’s driving dramatic ensembles, but its charming arias and duets reveal rich musical resources and a wide emotional range.  The young cast were uniformly accomplished.  Nicholas Merryweather, playing his second Bampton Figaro (he appeared in Paisiello’s Barber in 2005), displayed outstanding diction, projecting word and line without forcing, and his strong, flexible baritone conveyed the sharp ingenuity of this resourceful barber.  Susanna was sung by Emily Rowley Jones.  Her coloratura sparkled and her upper register was unfailingly focused, with perfect intonation and sweet tone.  She blended deliciously with Lisa Wilson’s Countess in their Act 2 duet. As Cherubino, Joana Seara was fittingly gamine; buoyant vocal lines were matched by an astute sense of comic timing.  John-Colyn Gyeantey was an earnest Count, but his unyielding tenor struggled a little at the top, and he sometimes lacked the necessary musical and dramatic stature.

Rossi’s libretto essentially preserves da Ponte’s plot; Gilly French’s and Jeremy Gray’s translation was unfussy and droll, indulging in some clever versifying (‘anxious’/’fractious’) and typically slick one-liners – Basilio’s raucous karaoke to the pleasures of women, riotously delivered by baritone Robert Winslade Anderson, eliciting the snide put-down, ‘His music’s worse than Mozart’s…’.  The decorative screens of Almaviva’s Andalucian palace economically evoked Moorish Spain, and there was some witty business with props – Figaro’s bed was delivered by ‘Ikea Sevilla’.  The comic confusion was well-choreographed, particularly during the disclosures of the chaotic Act 2 sextet.  As the moon gleamed across the shadowy stage, the nocturnal shenanigans in the garden for once made perfect sense.

Portugal’s score is noteworthy for its clarity and lightness, textures always appropriate to situation.  Conductor Robin Newton drew warm, sensitive playing from the oboes and horns in some striking woodwind obliggatos; Kelvin Lim’s continuo was consistently idiomatic and alert.  Co-ordination between pit and stage was superb, and Newton kept a confident, controlled hand on the reins throughout.

Only in Act 2 Scene 2, when a series of long arias followed a lengthy scene change, did the pace begin to flag.  For this was a long evening; at almost three-and-a-half hours, the production asked a lot of its audience.  Yet, on this still, cool evening, with every gesture carefully conceived, every word audible, and every note precise and true, Bampton rose to the heights of its own elevated standards.

Looking ahead, the excavation work has begun already, with preparations underway for the UK première of Gluck’s Il parnaso confuso at the Purcell Room in June 2011.  Long may the digging continue.

Claire Seymour