Not everyone knows that there was a third part to Beaumarchais’ Figaro trilogy: their operatic incarnations have helped cement The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville in the collective imagination for centuries – but what of The Guilty Mother, the final puzzle piece? Darius Milhaud gave it operatic life in 1966, as did Inger Wikström thirty years later, and earlier this year, Russian-British composer Elena Langer stepped up to add her work to the growing Figaro family, in the form of her witty, elegant Figaro Gets a Divorce. The work was premiered by Welsh National Opera, its artistic director David Pountney having penned the libretto.

David Stout (Figaro) and Marie Arnet (Susanna) © GTG | Magali Dougados
David Stout (Figaro) and Marie Arnet (Susanna)
© GTG | Magali Dougados

The Grand Théâtre’s generous and ambitious plan is to present the three operas on consecutive days. The stagings hold their own as standalone works, but with clever little touches to link them (matching waistcoats; themed stage curtains), in their union they spell out a largely coherent narrative. 

So where do we stand, when the curtain parts on Part Three? The Count and Countess have been more or less happily married since Il barbiere di Siviglia, their servants Figaro and Susanna since Le nozze di Figaro. Yet even the longed-for bond of marriage is not infallible: it can be destroyed from the inside or the outside…  In a politically unstable (and geographically ambiguous) context, the dark figure of the Major steps into the household and threatens to undo all. Gone here are the games of rings and pins and disguises that drove the love intrigues of the first two works, but some elements are ever present: the sense of working against the clock, of opportunities nearly missed, of lives hanging in the balance of what is truthfully told and what is withheld. 

David Stout (Figaro) and Alan Oke (The Major) © GTG | Magali Dougados
David Stout (Figaro) and Alan Oke (The Major)
© GTG | Magali Dougados

If this sounds like a grimmer twist on the familiar comic themes of deceit and unfaithfulness, it is: exile, revolution, loss, divorce are ostensibly the opera’s major themes, and the yet Figaro Gets a Divorce is surprisingly cheery – although sharp with irony and jazz. 

Although its setting is historically vague, the production gives us clues: early cinema, cabaret, fascism, war, all underly the staging in rather broad lines (a typewriter, a newspaper, lipstick, neon). This cartoonishness comes with pitfalls: cross-dressing for laughs may have been a mainstay in Mozart’s time, but in this day and age it’s firmly passé. Ralph Koltaï’s stripped-down set, however, gives the opera a much more subtle texture, all torn cardboard and light reflected through plexiglass; the painted backdrops backlit like Japanese silk. 

This balance echoes the slightly uneasy fit of the music and text. There is a certain cartoonishness to the libretto itself; Pountney seems to believe in something like tell, don’t show. Lines at crucial moments include "I am frightened", "Where has the money gone?"and "I will destroy them one by one" – hardly modern poetry. The text establishes itself far from the shadow cast by Beaumarchais’ Guilty Mother or Ödön von Horváth’s 1936 play. It is Pountney’s own interpretation, however one might feel about that. 

Alan Oke (The Major) and Ellie Dehn (The Countess) © GTG | Magali Dougados
Alan Oke (The Major) and Ellie Dehn (The Countess)
© GTG | Magali Dougados

Langer, however, does beautiful things with this boxy text, backing it up with richly woven strings, illuminated by piano, accordion, xylophone and tubular bells. The cinematic undercurrent at times tips into contemporary tango, slinky and syncopated; the gorgeous instrumental interludes are reminiscent of Britten. As in much new opera, the spun-out aria of old is remoulded into exquisite moments, like the Countess’ "I’ve lost everything". These were so graceful as to make some of the longer scenes, like Susanna’s ‘Master and Maid’ cabaret act, feel like a joke that goes on one verse too long. 

Under Justin Brown’s baton, the Basel Sinfonietta were disciplined and energetic, bringing the score to life in all its shimmering richness. Langer writes well for the voice, filling the score with moments of close harmony and with angular and lovely melodic lines.

Marie Arnet’s emotionally charged soprano was held back slightly by muffled diction, but then the role of Susanna does require a certain reserve, a certain fatalistic sadness. Her moments with Figaro were tender, their relationship tense and fragile. David Stout’s rich, buttery baritone as the titular husband, deserves a star, as does Andrew Watts' luminous countertenor in his cheeky turn as Cherubino.

Ellie Dehn (The Countess) and Marie Arnet (Susanna) © GTG | Magali Dougados
Ellie Dehn (The Countess) and Marie Arnet (Susanna)
© GTG | Magali Dougados

Meanwhile, Alan Oke’s stage presence as the Major was phenomenal; you could tell he relished his role as the shady villain. His delivery was snarky and nasal, his melodic lines swooped around and played with, Sprechgesang-style. One moment in particular, when he blackmails the barber, singing a cheery little tango in the face of his open razor, had the whole audience laughing. Brought to life by his malleable and well-rounded tenor, his performance was a joy to experience. 

Ellie Dehn’s was the standout performance as the Countess, her soprano warm and liquid, with real emotion in the mezzo range. Her final duet, "Goodnight dear children", with the horns luscious in the background, brought the production to a gentle and lovely close.