Scintillating and frothy, last night’s production by Irish National Opera of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro had the audience rolling in the aisle. It’s an hilarious comedy of errors lampooning the foibles of human nature (well, generally the men) with the most divine music and heavenly arias.

Jonathan Lemalu (Figaro) and Tara Erraught (Susanna) © Pat Redmond
Jonathan Lemalu (Figaro) and Tara Erraught (Susanna)
© Pat Redmond

The action takes place in Seville in the late-18th century where a servant couple, Figaro and Susanna, are about to marry. Their master, Count Almaviva has repudiated his dubious right (Le droit du seigneur) of sleeping with any of the maids that takes his fancy. However, he lusts mightily after Susanna and uses his position to try and entice Susanna into bed with him. Countess Almaviva still manages to love him, despite his lamentable neglect of her and pursuit of others. Further complications ensue with different characters in various disguises having designs on Figaro and the Countess – in short, a plot worthy of any screwball comedy.

Director Patrick Mason created a finely detailed production that allowed the inherent humour to bubble over with good fun. The action was updated to the 1930s – think Downton Abbey. There were maids galore busying themselves about their domestic chores and a three-tiered pink wedding cake conjuring up the idea of wedding preparations, while the Count strutted around in his three-piece suit. There was a slightly surreal moment in Act 3 when the chorus suddenly morphed into hippy 1960s characters, full of flares and lurid colours and then proceeded to boogie for the festive chorus at the end.

The sets by Francis O’Connor were simple but convincing: wooden panels that could be moved about represented a bedchamber, an interior of the Count’s house or, in the final act, a pavilion in the garden. There was an oddly large portrait of Mozart hanging in the background whose function was more than slightly puzzling.

<i>Figaro</i> ensemble © Pat Redmond
Figaro ensemble
© Pat Redmond

From the very opening scene, where our eponymous hero is measuring his new room, Jonathan Lemalu's Figaro adroitly captured the humour of his situation. Looking and acting more like a prosperous businessman than the Count’s valet, Lemalu’s pleasing bass voice  didn’t project hugely at the beginning, though by Act 4 he blazed with unexpected vehemance and brilliance decrying the unfaithfulness of woman. 

The cause of this tirade is his fiancée, Susanna, played by Tara Erraught. Vocally, she instantly captured the imagination, her pellucid voice capable of mesmerising her betrothed, the lascivious Count and the audience alike. “Deh vieni, non tardar” was exquisitely sung, titillating the Count and sending her affianced into a paroxysm of jealousy. Dramatically too, she was spot on, imbuing her character with a pert feistiness at times, or happy to use her wiles and sexuality to achieve her ends.

Possessing an innate dramatic presence, Máire Flavin as the Countess showed a convincing mix between elegant sorrowing over her errant husband’s peccadilloes and spirited desire to win him back by any means. What “Porgi amor” lacked in silkiness of tone, it made up for in its touching pathos.

Ben McAteer (Count Almaviva) and Máire Flavin (Countess Almaviva) © Pat Redmond
Ben McAteer (Count Almaviva) and Máire Flavin (Countess Almaviva)
© Pat Redmond

As for the lecherous Count, Ben McAteer looked every inch the part, towering above the rest of the cast, the sweet heft of his baritone voice projecting very well. He approached his seductions with a gravity that might have been more suitable for some nobler line of work though he was rather more convincing as a thwarted lover. 

Aoife Miskelly really impressed as the love-sick page, Cherubino. “Voi che sapete” was ravishingly good and delightfully bashful while her acting was convincingly hormonal and mischievous. Suzanne Murphy’s Marcellina was wonderfully catty at the start before transforming in a flash into the doting mother of the second half and Graeme Danby hilariously hammed up the character of Dr Bartolo. Amy Ní Fhearraigh made the most her part as Barbarina, especially the beautiful tone with which she imbued her aria “L’ho perduto”.

Conductor Peter Whelan and the Irish Chamber Orchestra gave what was an invigorating performance, full of energy and lightness of touch. I was impressed by the crisp articulation and sharp rhythms. The balance was well struck between singers and orchestra allowing the glorious vocal lines to soar. A final word of praise is due to the chorus who were in terrific form providing some strong singing support and frothy action.

****1