As Timothy Dean, Head of Opera at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland points out in his programme note, Mozart’s Figaro is the perfect piece for an opera school: most of the roles are the playing age of the students and the themes of status, power, trust, fidelity and human rights are as relevant today as they were when Mozart penned his revolutionary score. Having said that, Figaro is also a huge challenge for a young cast as it is a long opera with a complicated story to get across with demanding central roles. A frothy mixture of arias, ensembles and tricky recitatives make up Mozart’s well-known music which although sometimes appearing simple on the page is a formidable challenge to get just right.

Hazel McBain (Susanna) and Arshak Kuzikyan (Figaro) © KK Dundas
Hazel McBain (Susanna) and Arshak Kuzikyan (Figaro)
© KK Dundas

This is the opera school’s fourth production in 20 years, this one happily kept fresh and alive under Ashley Dean’s well thought through lively direction with stylish lighting and costume design by Cordelia Chisholm. There was a contemporary feel from the modern costumes to the set of individual pieces of furniture, objects and stand-alone doorways all under a square metal lattice lighting rig at a slightly wonky angle. Chisholm’s changing colour palette, a feature of this production, was particularly effective with monochrome giving way through creams and browns to muted pastels with bolder colours arriving in the wedding scene.

Sung in Italian, a strong student cast filled the central roles, with equal singing honours going to Hazel McBain’s sprightly mischievous Susanna, Christopher Nairn’s dangerously beguiling Count and a compelling Figaro from Armenian Arshak Kuzikyan. Illness has dogged this production cutting down rehearsal time, and it was bad luck that the Countess – the only double-cast part (and therefore not understudied), saw both singers under the weather. Happily, Melanie Gowie was well enough to appear onstage and to sing her recitatives with her arias spiritedly sung by Susanna’s understudy Charlotte Drummmond from the orchestra slips. Grace Durham’s stroppy teen Cherubino in jeans, grungy jacket and unmanageable hair stuffed into a beanie clearly relished this character part.  

Ashley Dean’s imaginative staging allowed the singers plenty of space for the arias, but was kept busy when required by the fast-moving storyline. The concealment, disguises and window-jumping set pieces of staging convinced and were amusing while there were some spectacular tableaus like the wedding where the small chorus smuggled in a very unwilling Cheribino in a bright red dress and high heels. The final Garden scene can flag sometimes, so it was intriguing to see it interpreted as the aftermath of a wild party. The lighting rig now listed at a dangerous angle, the garden was littered with wedding table detritus, the Countess’ armchair and her standard lamp and Figaro’s bed now standing on its bedstead head. There was plenty to hold the attention as the elaborate mixture of costume disguises slowly unravelled to a happy ending.

© KK Dundas
© KK Dundas

In the pit, conductor Timothy Dean kept a fresh feel to the music and his small student orchestra brought out lots of attention to detail, particularly in the strings. The recitatives, where most of the story happens, are usually fast moving and difficult and I was particularly impressed by Michal Gajzler whose lightest of touches on the fortepiano threw the focus right back onto the stage, yet was enough to support these critical links.

While individuals are important, in this opera the cast has to work together combining musical and stagecraft skills more than most. The handful of supporting parts and the chorus were all effective. Given the truncated rehearsal time, I was allowing for something a little raw, but musically, the voices blended well together especially in the final act, and the ensemble worked very hard to make seamless stage action appear effortless. Figaro is a delicate mix of the serious and comic and this enjoyable production had the balance just right.

****1