The Marriage of Figaro Back

Glyndebourne is renowned for its summer opera festival in rural Sussex, but the company also tour extensively. This helps to make their performances more accessible, both geographically and financially. This November they had their usual residency at Milton Keynes Theatre, which included a revival of their 2012 production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.

Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte based the opera on Beaumarchais’s 1778 play, which fell foul of the censor for its tale of aristocratic vice and quick-witted servants. This was revolutionary stuff indeed, and Beaumarchais had to transpose the action from France to Spain to get it performed. The current production, directed by Michael Grandage and designed by Christopher Oram, keeps it in Spain but moves it forward to the 1970s. It is therefore set during another authoritarian regime on its last legs, that of General Franco.

The political content is more muted in this production though. The military only appears as a device to get Cherubino out of the way, rather than the power behind a fascist dictatorship. The regime is not so much under threat from the rise of democracy, as from the rise of disco. (This is not that far from the mark, as historians have long argued that the social liberalisation of the sixties and the influence of mass tourism played an important role in the end of the junta.)

This is a funky Figaro, where characters groove around the stage, smoke joints and sport spectacular multi-coloured flares. The big choruses become mass disco dance-offs. If you are wondering whether it is possible to bop to marches and minuets, then I can only assure you that these performers manage it. At times I was reminded of the disco remix of Beethoven’s Fifth in Saturday Night Fever.

The action is set in a sun-dappled and slightly tatty palacio in a Moorish style. It therefore felt rather louche in a seventies way, and provided a suitable backdrop for the tale of bedhopping and deception. Figaro and Susanna are portrayed as a very modern couple, in contrast with Bartolo and Marcellina who represent the conservatism of the older generation. Countess Almaviva is a rather tragic figure in Nardus Williams’s powerful performance, trapped in a marriage with a man who is not faithful to her.

The mezzo soprano Ida Ränzlöv steals the show as Cherubino. Cherubino is a teenage boy on heat, who seems to fall in love with every woman he meets. It is one of opera’s most famous trouser roles, and while Ränzlöv’s vocal tone is full rather than boyish, she physically inhabits the part in all of its horny gawkiness. When Cherubino disguises himself as a woman, she plays a boy-failing-to-impersonate-a-girl to great comic effect. Incidentally, the role was debuted by a mezzo rather than a castrato, so eighteenth-century audiences were similarly asked to play along.

Stephanie Childress conducts, drawing beautiful sonorities from the orchestra. Her approach is informed by period performance, with sprightly tempi and clear textures. The orchestra play modern instruments, with the exception of natural trumpets and hard sticks on the timpani, giving the ‘military’ passages a very eighteenth-century feel. The recitative is accompanied by fortepiano rather than the more familiar harpsichord.

This was an enjoyably frothy Figaro, which didn’t dwell too much on the political context of the eighteenth century, nor indeed the twentieth. But even when presented as a 1970s sex comedy, this opera still illuminates the human condition, because it contains some of the most profound music that Mozart ever wrote.