Irish National Opera presents Mozart’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ at the Gaiety Theatre Dublin on 17 April 2018
It feels like the first day of spring. After months of fighting against the cold, suddenly today the skies are blue, the sun is out, and the streets of the city are thronged with people just enjoying themselves. And look what else is new: there’s an opera on at the Gaiety. Since Irish National Opera was first announced last year, there has been quite a build-up of expectation and excitement, and tonight sees the Dublin opening of the company’s first in-house production, so no pressure. Starting out with Mozart’s comedy ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ might seem safe and conservative, but that’s to take this tricky and playful piece of human drama a little too much for granted, and it proves a thoughtful choice.
In the pit, conductor Peter Whelan draws fresh and transparent playing from the Irish Chamber Orchestra from the very first notes of the overture. They are a rich and engaging presence throughout, making way in recitatives for the elegant accompaniment of an authentic-sounding fortepiano. Whelan’s approach and his experience of early music also seems to rub off on the singers, with some stylish vocal ornamentation coming from the stage as well. The curtain is already up before the start, and director Patrick Mason uses the overture to start setting the scene, as the participants of this ‘mad day’ (that’s the opera’s subtitle) assemble and pass by. The gathering-together of a house, and servants to-ing and fro-ing, suggests an updated (1970s) ‘Downton Abbey’, a handy shorthand for this story of power, society, and inequality.
Mezzo soprano Tara Erraught seems, on paper at least, unlikely casting for the usually soprano Susanna. But as the work progresses she inhabits this role with wit and assurance, her singing superb, as her performance leads us from the cartoonish exchanges of the opening scenes to the compelling immediacy of the work’s conclusion. Partnering her, the New Zealand bass Jonathan Lemalu is luxury casting in the role of Figaro, and he delivers a warmly understated reading. As his employer, the louche Count Almaviva, baritone Ben McAteer presents an intriguing figure, smoothly-sung, decisive yet distracted, a reading of the role that is disarmingly naturalistic.
For Máire Flavin—having sung Donna Anna in 2016’s Don Giovanni with Opera Theatre Company—playing the Countess is a logical next step, yet here, despite her obvious vocal beauty, the nature of the role itself seems to elude her, and she plays it a little too cool and distant. Completing the principals, Aoife Miskelly’s Cherubino is wonderfully gangly and affectionate, a necessary comic force. Of all the other roles, mention must be made of this year’s PlecPick Amy Ní Fhearraigh. Singing Cherubino’s girlfriend Barbarina, she brings a rare polish and colour to this character, with a hilarious yet finely-tuned performance, and hopefully we’ll hear her in a more substantial role before too long.
There are many highlights, but the most special comes in the fourth act, with Erraught’s singing of the aria ‘Deh vieni, non tardar’ (‘Oh come, don’t delay’), a subversive piece of play-acting and an exquisite musical moment all in one. In an opera obsessed with the play of appearance and reality, the final act can sometimes be difficult to follow in the theatre, but in Mason’s direction the twists and counter-plots play out with bittersweet clarity. Little is cut, and we even have fireworks at the end in a rare nod to the theatrics of early opera. Ending with laughter, tears, a fizz and a bang, the cork is well and truly out of the bottle. Here’s hoping that INO (and all of us) enjoy a long and fruitful artistic journey.
Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro (‘The Marriage of Figaro’)
Sung in Italian (libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte), with English surtitles
Director: Patrick Mason; Designer: Francis O’Connor; Lighting Designer: Paul Keogan; Conductor: Peter Whelan
Cast: Jonathan Lemalu (Figaro); Tara Erraught (Susanna); Ben McAteer (Count Almaviva); Máire Flavin (Countess Almaviva); Aoife Miskelly (Cherubino); Suzanne Murphy (Marcellina); Graeme Danby (Doctor Bartolo); Adrian Thompson (Don Basilio); Andrew Gavin (Don Curzio); John Molloy (Antonio); Amy Ní Fhearraigh (Barbarina); Catherine Donnelly & Dominica Williams (Bridesmaids); INO Chorus; Irish Chamber Orchestra
Images by Pat Redmond