Joe Hill-Gibbins brings ENO a new, pared-down production of The Marriage of Figaro, replacing Fiona Shaw’s Minotaur-inspired labyrinth. There may be scant props – no bed, no garden; the setting is a blank white rectangle with a single coat hook and four doors – but it nonetheless teems with life.   

Colin Judson (Don Basilio), Louise Alder (Susanna) and Johnathan McCullough (Count Almaviva)
© Marc Brenner

The spare design is unsettling at first, even perplexing, but pays considerable dramatic dividends. Rarely has Susanna’s amazement that it is this room the count has given them seemed so appropriate, given that it feels so exposed and transitional, like a corridor; the claustrophobic entrances exaggerate the perverse dynamics of the Count’s household. 

This unburdened approach meant clarity in storytelling – rarely has the barmy plot come over so neatly – and psychological acuity, as well as clearing the decks for the farcical humour. The doors integrate with the action in various ways: in the overture they are key to a dumb show the gins up the cut-and-thrust energies of La Folle Journée. In arias they reveal the characters’ innermost fears or desires, deployed with special ingenuity in “Se vuol ballare” and “Vedro mentr’io sospiro”. As hinges between imagination and reality they suggest the doors of René Magritte. So much rests on the opening and closing of these doors that it would be easy for the show to visually sag, which felt the case by the end of Act 1. Sometimes the box moves up and down with little apparent meaning, particularly clogging up the second act in a show that otherwise zips along.

Božidar Smiljanić (Figaro)
© Marc Brenner

On the other side of the humour are glimpses of real darkness, cruelty and isolation. The Count throws Barbarina to the ground at the beginning of Act 4 when giving her the pin. Here the sparseness of the staging gives way to a cold and starkly-lit space as naked as the power dynamics. Barbarina’s muted aria that follows had an especially wounded, shattered quality, remarkably integrated in what can be an awkward tonal shift in the show. It is an opera, of course, that begins with the measuring of an empty space, and Johannes Schütz’s designs reflect the terrible loneliness in the Countess’ life, as well as the nihilism of the Count’s libertinage; the final stage picture is of him abandoned by his wife. 

Hanna Hipp (Cherubino) and the ENO Chorus
© Marc Brenner

Clive Bayley feels like a special treat in his comic turn as Antonio, choosing to sing the role rather than bark it. Jeremy Sams’ bluff translation is particularly deadpan in his hands – Cherubino falls “straight on to my hydrangea” – and his characteristically idiomatic approach to opera in English gives the text a humane familiarity. Colin Judson delighted in the double-role of Basilio and Curzio, the former an oleaginous geezer of Del Boy vintage, the latter a stuttering bewigged jurist straight from G&S. Andrew Shore is a wonderful buffa baritone, but his Bartolo was vocally ragged and underpowered: it might be a blustery role but still needs some liquidity and legato

The women at the centre of the opera offered standout performances. Apart from a glaring (and uncharacteristic) misstep in “Dove sono”, Elizabeth Watts was a commanding Countess, and struck an excellent balance between vulnerability and determination, reflected in a vocal profile mixing timbral flexibility with fulsome power.  

Louise Alder made an outstanding ENO debut as Susanna. She sparkled in her witty and wily movements, driving the action of the opera far more that its titular protagonist (Susanna is clearly the brains of the operation); in recitatives hers was a thrilling realisation of the text. Vocally she was lithe and crystalline, every phrase sculpted with intelligence and insight. Her “Deh vieni, non-tardar” was a show-stopping moment of humane tenderness. Her complex Susanna cultivated a delicious frisson with Hanna Hipp’s grungy Cherubino. In another superb house debut, Hipp found lusty richness in her voice alongside effervescence.

Louise Alder (Susanna) and Johnathan McCullough (Count Almaviva)
© Marc Brenner

The leading men sang competently, but most convincing as acting and singing packages in the recitatives. Božidar Smiljanić’s Figaro took a declamatory approach to the role, covering considerably in the upper reaches, rubbing off some of the character’s brilliance. Johnathan McCullough’s Almaviva despatched his top F sharp in his big Act 3 aria with ease, and generated a bright, aristocratic sound throughout, though lacked definition lower down. His American accent brought a sleazy charm, redolent of the gangsters in Jonathan Miller’s Mafia Rigoletto. 

The ENO orchestra were smooth and unobtrusive, rarely letting Mozart’s inspired orchestration come out from under a duvet of a homogenous, if competent, sound. Classy conducting from Kevin John Edusei was again unassuming but perfectly efficient and helpfully propulsive. There is plenty of room for this show to grow musically, but the whole package thoroughly convinces.