Have you ever thought that the first few notes of Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro sound a little like a trapped bluebottle? Fiona Shaw has: and just as her production opens with one exuberant, fresh-eyed musical joke, her whole vision of Mozart’s masterpiece at English National Opera resounds with wit and energy. Jeremy Sams’ engaging English translation of Da Ponte’s libretto is full of fun, while strong performances from the principals (particularly in the second half) and warm playing from the English National Opera Orchestra give us a memorable evening of effervescent Mozart.

David Stout (Figaro) © Robbie Jack
David Stout (Figaro)
© Robbie Jack

This Marriage of Figaro is full of physical motion. The revolving stage moves us through a seemingly endless palace, conceived by designer Peter McKintosh as a circular maze, giving a strong sense of the relentless bustling of Count Almaviva’s mansion. At different points in the opera, different characters push or pull the stage on its journey: Figaro starts it off, and later tries vainly to slow the stage down as the plots, mischief and set begin to spiral into fabulous chaos. Kim Brandstrup’s movement designs are buzzing with physical comedy, particularly for Figaro and Cherubino, who tumble around in a series of athletic and acrobatic falls.

Conductor Jaime Martin produces a warm and lovely sound, though occasionally rushing his principals: Dr Bartolo (Jonathan Best) was so entirely unseated by a blistering orchestral start to his “La vendetta” that he could not ever regain control of it, while Cherubino’s “Non so piu cosa son, cosa faccio” felt a little held back by a hesitant, dragging orchestra. Overall, it seems that significant rehearsal time has been spent on the magnificent theatricality and comedy of this reading, but perhaps at the expense of fewer hours with the orchestra.  However, the second half saw a marked improvement in the pairing of singers and orchestra which implies this problem will soon resolve in the course of the run.

Benedict Nelson (Count), Mary Bevan (Susanna), David Stout (Figaro) & Sarah-Jane Brandon (Countess) © Robbie Jack
Benedict Nelson (Count), Mary Bevan (Susanna), David Stout (Figaro) & Sarah-Jane Brandon (Countess)
© Robbie Jack

Benedict Nelson gives a brilliantly characterised performance as Count Almaviva, oft tousling his much-tousled hair, thoroughly masculine and increasingly exasperated as Susanna, Figaro, the Countess and even little Barbarina all slip through his fingers. Although the Count strays often and widely, Nelson manages to convey a sense of a real man fighting for a very real marriage, once his own jealousy is roused, while his beautiful singing compels us to fall a little bit in love with him. Sarah-Jane Brandon sings with creamy perfection throughout as his lovelorn Countess Almaviva, opening with “Porgi Amor” delivered in her bathroom surrounded by retainers, including a tame apothecary mixing elixirs of comfort, and delivering a fabulous “Dove sono” which, in its piano moments, brought us all to the edge of our seats with its tender intensity. Despite her apothecary, Brandon’s Countess is not averse to pouring her own drinks, even prone to the occasional restorative sherry when the other characters are not looking (a beautifully human touch). In Shaw’s vision of 18th century life, quite accurately, it is almost impossible to be truly alone: the servants are so ubiquitous that all life – even a seduction scene – happens in front of them, heightening the constant pressure of social exposure, and lending the final scenes in the garden a fervid intensity as the plotting characters seek desperately for a little precious privacy, still secretly watched and overheard by each other.

Mary Bevan (Susanna) © Robbie Jack
Mary Bevan (Susanna)
© Robbie Jack

David Stout is a charismatic and jolly Figaro, underscored by a nice line of grit which also makes him a character to be reckoned with: Stout’s “Si vuol ballare, Signor Contino” had just the right mixture of the playful and the dark. Figaro’s quicksilver ability to turn any situation to his advantage, even while it is changing, is a source of constant humour – particularly when his confidence outstrips his actual power to influence events, something Stout portrays brilliantly. Mary Bevan’s Susanna, after a slightly subdued start, grew stronger and stronger throughout the evening, culminating in a “Deh vieni, non tardar” which was a passionate, sensual  revelation of liquid, bright tones. Bevan’s Susanna is fiery, clear-eyed and practical, with plenty of resourcefulness of her own: an excellent match for Figaro in every sense. Her scenes with Marcellina, first her rival and then her mother-in-law, are delightfully tart. At the curtain, Bevan was presented with the 2014 Critics’ Circle Award for Exceptional Young Talent (Voice), an honour thoroughly deserved.  

Mary Bevan (Susanna), Samantha Price (Cherubino) and Sarah-Jane Brandon (Countess) © Robbie Jack
Mary Bevan (Susanna), Samantha Price (Cherubino) and Sarah-Jane Brandon (Countess)
© Robbie Jack

Samantha Price is an excellent Cherubino: her boyish mannerisms nicely observed, part gauche little boy and part arrogant teenage heartthrob, her singing is exquisite, particularly in “Voi, che sapete.” Lucy Schaufer, as Marcellina, and Jonathan Best as Dr Bartolo, make a good comic double, with Colin Judson a memorably acid, blind Don Basilio. Ellie Laugharne gives an eyecatching performance as a tipsy Barbarina, with beautiful ornamentation at the end of her “L’ho perduta.”

Altogether, Shaw’s lyrical, joyful production makes the most of Mozart’s razor-sharp wit, sparkling ideas and acute human observation, with laughs in all the right places, and tension throughout: well worth watching.