Every time someone updates The Marriage of Figaro, the most surprising thing is the resilience – the insistent, perennial relevance – of this opera’s inner social structure. Whether a production is set in 1760 or 1960, the struggles of power between the elite and the subservient, the put-upon and the privileged, just keep working, keep on being believable. In a post-Weinstein world, of course, this opera gains a heady boost of absolute, up-to-the-minute relevance, no matter what you do with it, although that brings with it the danger of alienating the Count from our hearts completely. If we stop caring about his marriage to the Countess, we fundamentally miss the psychological balance of this opera, which asks rude and even dangerous questions about love, attraction and fidelity in order to find eventual relief and solace in the wary, wise and wholehearted final commitment of its two loving couples. Merry Opera’s ecstatically energetic jazz version, set in the Sixties, keeps true love firmly centre stage, while positively revelling in the madness of “The Crazy Day” (Beaumarchais’ own alternative title).
Fresh and direct are definitely the rules of play for this production, with Amanda Holden’s crisp, punchy English translation (“that bastard Figaro…”) delivered with clarity and focus by ten singers who do not miss a beat and back one another up seamlessly in an excitingly dynamic ensemble performance. As they (literally) jive and twist their merry way through the crazy curves of Beaumarchais’ revolutionary plot, also moving the scenery and handing one another martinis at crucial moments, a mood of frenetic energy is established by director John Ramster, perfectly suited to the febrile atmosphere of Almaviva’s household, riven with illicit desires and secret betrayals, and above all, a place where nearly everyone is young, gorgeous, and impatient for change. Michelle Bradbury’s monochrome set, inspired by giant piano keys which revolve to produce cupboard-like recesses, eventually feels starkly placeless in an opera where physical situation is often key to comedy, although brilliantly an oversized, loudly-clicking lock joins us on stage when a cross-dressed Cherubino is trapped in the Countess’ wardrobe, and he later gets a deliberately fake window to climb through.
While Mozart’s vocal lines remain deliciously intact, his orchestration is translated by Harry Sever into a jazz accompaniment for a trio of piano, double bass and drums. The 1960s setting grew from this jazz idea, and there is no doubt that it turns out to be surprisingly apt for the sultry, bitter notes of the slower arias like “Porgi amor”, “Dove sono” and “Deh vieni, non tardar”: jazz seems well able to capture the mix of the playful and the painful which tends to characterise these deep, reflective moments. “Porgi amor” gets a particularly brilliant outing here, introduced by Count Almaviva in an imaginary jazz club as “his new song”, with the Countess singing it apparently to order, yet brimful of raw, angry emotion as it clearly points to real holes in their marriage. This darkly sick take on an aria usually considered a deeply private expression of despair works wonders. However, in other passages, especially recitative, the jazz can start to smother or fight with Mozart’s faster writing, feeling jazzily monotonous and even exhausting at times. A notable casualty is Figaro’s sarcastic farewell to the newly-conscripted Cherubino, “Non più andrai”: the jazz trio can’t evoke military tone, so even imaginary poignancy never gets off the ground, and the aria sounds much like its fellows, when in fact it’s a unique moment. This is where the ironic inflexibility of jazz begins to hamper what is, otherwise, an emotionally articulate production; and an unexpected consequence is that the jazz can consequently push your attention back onto the vocal line, where expression is reliably rich and clear.
The jewel of the piece is a magnificently proud, sincere yet sassy Countess from Rhiannon Llewellyn, her soprano perfectly fitted for this luscious music, from elegant delicacy to poised, regal strength. Llewellyn’s exceptionally fine acting gives us a Countess who loves her husband deeply enough to want to rekindle their marriage, but who is also deeply hurt by his betrayal. Anna Sideris’ Susanna is charming and charismatic, with “Deh vieni, non tardar” delivered with plangent beauty. Sideris and Alistair Ollerenshaw, her Figaro, play well off each other, Ollerenshaw’s generous baritone a constant pleasure. Gemma Morsley’s waspy yet vulnerable Marcellina is an absolute delight, getting right to the heart of the role with her finely-honed mezzo (not to mention some fabulous dancing, handbag clutched and ready). Bethany Horak-Hallett’s Cherubino immediately captures our attention, and keeps it, with her agile and lyrical mezzo conveyed with nicely boyish mannerisms. Phil Wilcox’s Count comes across well with undeniable presence in his clear baritone. Lawrence Olsworth-Peter brings us a slouching, scheming Don Basilio and a hilariously half-dead, stuttering Don Curzio. Matthew Quirk’s Bartolo is nicely smug and angry by turns, but needs to be more centred. Christopher Faulkner nearly steals the show as outraged Cockney gardener Antonio, incandescent over his beloved geraniums, and Eleanor Sanderson-Nash is a treat as an unusually serious Barbarina.
The overall effect of Sever’s jazz experiment is certainly entertaining and, at times, utterly fascinating, as arias like “Porgi amor” start to explore whole new dimensions of the pain and control implicit in love, thanks to the particular atmospheres of desire and defiance which jazz brings. While this isn’t the only way to see The Marriage of Figaro, it’s definitely a vibrant, fun-fuelled and finely sung Figaro worth seeing.
Reviewed at Beccles Public Hall on Friday 8 February
On tour across the UK until 3 March 2018: find full details here