The other ‘Marriage of Figaro’

Opera Today, October 2010

The opening night of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, in Rome in 1816, was violently disrupted by vociferous protests from supporters loyal to Paisiello, whose own comic interpretation of Beaumarchais’ politically-charged play had appeared in 1782.

Fortunately, Bampton Classical Opera’s presentation of a ‘rival’ The Marriage of Figaro, by the little-known Portuguese composer, Marcos Portugal (1762-1830), was not interrupted by raucous complaints by die-hard Mozartians. Given its UK première in the Deanery Gardens at Bampton in July this year, this is believed to be the first production of this witty and effervescent opera since its première during the Venetian Carnival season of 1800.

Gaetano Rossi’s libretto essentially preserves Da Ponte’s familiar plot and structure, a fact which is not surprising given that at this time it was common for libretti to circulate independently of their accompanying scores. Gilly French’s and Jeremy Gray’s translation was typically witty and droll, some self-conscious rhymes (fractious/anxious) and slick one-liners adding to the air of frivolity and recklessness.

The plot may be immediately recognisable but the characters wear different musical costumes. The young cast were uniformly accomplished and committed; theatrically convincing and consistent, they really entered the spirit of piece, indulging its light-weight humour but also intimating its darker currents. There was a spontaneity and freshness about the on-stage choreography: thus, the ‘parade’ of characters during the overture, which might have seemed contrived, in fact captured a naturalist ‘busyness’ and sense of domestic intrigue. We were given a series of miniature cameos — a sort of cinematic role call — immediately and economically capturing each character’s essential temperament: Figaro’s confident ingenuity, Susanna’s cleverness, Bartolo’s grumpiness and the Countess’s quiet gravity.

Performing his second Bampton Figaro (he appeared as Paisiello’s barber in 2005), Nicholas Merryweather stood out: clear, firm and relaxed of tone, his diction was superb (no mean feat in this venue) and he exhibited a musical and dramatic confidence and ease which surely indicate great successes to come. In his programme notes, David Cranmer explains that, even if Portugal had been familiar with Mozart’s score, it would not have served as a good musical model, for his concise arias — with their energetic accompaniments — would not have provided sufficient opportunity for the singers to show off their virtuosity. Portugal’s first Susanna was Teresa Strinasacchi, evidently a soprano of first-rate technique and expansive range; but Emily Rowley Jones had no difficulty dispatching the demands of Susanna’s sparkling coloratura. Her intonation was unfailing true and her tone engaging.

I first saw this production at Bampton Deanery Gardens, in July, a picturesque outdoor venue which was perfectly placed to capture the ambience of seductive conspiracy, and I was a little worried how it would transfer to the confined space at St John’s, with its theatrical restrictions and limitations. Interestingly, the result was in fact a tighter sense of theatrical timing and movement. Moreover, some of the characters seemed positively to benefit from the more intimate stage space — John-Colyn Gyeantey’s Count, in particular, presenting a much more focused reading of the role. The rather blundering buffoon-like figure from Bampton was here replaced by an angrier, more severe Count, of greater musical and dramatic stature. Previously, I had found his tone rather unyielding, but now he discovered a weight and compass which greatly enlarged the scope of the part and enhanced the dramatic tension.

The role of the Countess seems to have been constrained by the technical limitations of the first interpreter, Rosa Canzoni; and this is a shame as it would have been nice to have heard more of Lisa Wilson’s sweet, composed tone, which blended so beautifully with Rowley Jones in their Act 2 duet.

A gamine Joana Seara pouted and cringed as the frustrated, gauche Cherubino, but while her upper register dazzled, I sensed a slight hard-edge to her tone, particularly in Act 1. Robert Winslade Anderson bellowed warmly as the vivacious, mischievous music-master; Basilio’s drunken karaoke to the pleasures of women was riotously delivered, eliciting the snide put-down, ‘His music’s worse than Mozart …’ from a contemptuous Figaro. Mark Saberton’s Bartolo and Cara Curran’s Marcellina completed the gifted cast of principals; and Edmund Connolly (Antonio) and Caroline Kennedy (his daughter, Cecchina), delivered these minor roles in charming and accomplished fashion.

The sets were devised by Jeremy Gray, Mike Wareham and Anthony Hall, and the lighting design deserves especial mention, with its striking contrasts of bright complementary shades — deep blue suggesting the seductive light of the moon against a rich Seville orange evoking the balmy warmth of both the climate and burgeoning passions; emerald green intimating the cool composure of the Countess juxtaposed against deep purple suggestive of erotic ‘Turkish delights’.

The orchestral players were positioned behind the Moorish screens which effectively portrayed Almaviva’s Andalucian palace, but despite this placement, the ensemble between stage and ‘pit’ was surprisingly good; only occasionally did one or two of the singers slightly anticipate — which was surprising as Robin Newton, conducting the lucid, bright London Mozart Players, urged the action along at a brisk pace, whirling us through the first act and establishing an exciting dramatic momentum. Indeed effectively he revealed the dynamic quality of some of Portugal’s ensembles, particularly at the end of Act 1 and during the chaotic shenanigans of the Act 2 sextet.

Leaving the church, one patron was heard to remark, ‘I really hadn’t expected the music to be so good’. In fact, he should not have been surprised: Bampton Classical Opera are committed to reviving works of genuine musical and dramatic value. Their courageous repertoire is meticulously researched and selected, and thoughtfully and inventively staged.

Bampton have give us Paisiello’s Barber and Gazzaniga’s Don Giovanni (1997 and 2004). What’s to come? A neglected Così? Portugal’s Figaro is unlikely to replace Mozart’s barber in the opera-going public’s affection, but his joyful opera is definitely worth hearing. It may lack the intensity of Mozart’s complex dramatic ensembles but its chain of charming arias and duets reveals rich musical resources and engaging invention. It is not merely a ‘curiosity’ but a work of considerable operatic merit — and it’s a pity that not more of the British opera press were here to enjoy it.

Claire Seymour