Elena Langer’s score for Welsh National Opera’s Figaro Gets a Divorce wasn’t exactly easy listening, but it did have flair and imagination. The plot tells the tale of Almaviva, Figaro and their partners fleeing the Almaviva castle from the revolution, when a Major from the secret service finds them and sets them on to a path of destruction. Figaro's wife runs off with a nightclub owner and secrets in the Almaviva family are exposed resulting in a mass flee again back to the now converted castle mental asylum.

Alan Oke (The Major) and Naomi O'Connell (Serafin) © Richard Hubert Smith
Alan Oke (The Major) and Naomi O'Connell (Serafin)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The sporadic musical moments in Langer's Turnage-style score were sumptuous, where rich orchestration, heavy in brass and strings, contrasted with a use of polarised textures. Shrill piccolos and gravelly double basses were implemented for effect and suspended around short sharp percussive moments. The music was divided in small segments where, at times, more continuation and development of the fragments could have carried the surreal story better and less confusion in the action on stage. The main thing that this score really missed was a chorus to set the scene a bit more and define the soloists. Despite this, the music was clearly set out in different themes that were referred back to at the appropriate moments, but they weren’t easy to relate to each other. Either side of the interval, the Cabaret scenes were linked with an impactful and cleverly written song “Don’t We” in a Liza Minelli, musical theatre style belter of a tune commenced by Serafin, played by a PVC clad Naomi O'Connell as the maid turned cabaret singer.

There were more elements of jazz in the Major, Alan Oke’s mad singing in which he hummed and laughed at the world he was controlling around him. This was contrasted with Bernard Hermann style sweeping strings that took us on a journey between the scenes. Oke, as the Major, had been dressed as a character out of The Adjustment Bureau by Sue Blane with a long leather coat, trilby hat and crisp tailoring. Later as the plot unfolded, he put on a cropped red-head wig and a female army uniform, very typical of Blane’s Rocky Horror Show style. Andrew Watts as the Cherub, boldy wore a corset with suit trousers playing a disguised man as a transvestite bar maid. The filmic collage of references of bluesy muted brass and accordion melodies in the music were also echoed in the costumes and set design.

Mark Stone (Count) and Elizabeth Watts (Countess) © Richard Hubert Smith
Mark Stone (Count) and Elizabeth Watts (Countess)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Blane’s approach to the costumes did not disappoint and were fitting with the set. Cool tones in her war era film noir tailoring echoed Ralph Koltai’s ripped paper collage mountains with a golden floating, glowing castle and large revolving panels, where props helped to tell the story. There were moments where the scene changes were a bit awkward, assisted by the sole two members of the chorus walking around and clipping the scenery together. Unfortunately the mirror panels either side of the stage rather gave away anytime this was about to happen. Long perspex strips that folded out from the central panels or descended as windows, written like giant neon signs with the place names helped to set the scenes. In the more dramatic scenes of the opera, the two panels were set at right angles with crossed lights so that big shadows of the characters were cast on a backdrop of monochrome ripped type saying “Rivoluzione” splashed with blood-like red paint.

Marie Arnet (Susanna) and Andrew Watts (Cherub) © Richard Hubert Smith
Marie Arnet (Susanna) and Andrew Watts (Cherub)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The story was creative and dynamic, if not a little slow to open. David Pountney’s libretto and Elena Langer’s score worked well alongside each other, despite their being no memorable melodies. The story was so outrageous that it worked, even though there were a few plot holes, or elements that could have evolved in a different way. The sections of the libretto were titled on the subtitles screen above the stage, which helped significantly in telling the story. One has to question if Figaro ever really did get a divorce after the whole revolutionary story rounded up, having covered themes of adultery, madness, pregnancy, incest and power. For including all of these themes, it was not short of an evening’s entertainment. The only flakey moment in storytelling was the travelling scene at the end, in which the singers acted out different modes of transport that were shown in an animation on the screen and wasn’t in keeping with the rest of the production.

The singing and musical talents for the evening were unquestionable. All of the singers on stage were very strong in character and each had very defining voices. Notably, Elizabeth Watts stood out for her performance as the Countess, playing a strong authoritative woman as well as showing vulnerability. The orchestra of the Welsh National Opera delivered effortlessly, despite highly interchangeable music and did not tire throughout a very refreshing and memorable performance of new opera.