The midpoint of Welsh National Opera’s current season Figaro Forever was an uncomplicatedly light-hearted staging of The Marriage of Figaro, with a uniformly strong cast of principals and Lothar Koenigs’ orchestra offering a musically excellent performance.

Anna Devin (Susanna) and David Stout (Figaro) © Richard Hubert Smith
Anna Devin (Susanna) and David Stout (Figaro)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The absurdity of the opera was fully embraced and indulged by Tobias Richter’s production, especially amusing in cahoots with Jeremy Sams’ entertaining translation, which at times gave the whole thing a Gilbert and Sullivan feel. Aside from overseeing what is clearly a very slick production, Richter framed the evening, in the loosest sense, around the idea of a ‘play within a play’. Before the overture, several gaudily dressed theatre-types appear on stage, limbering up and thumbing through scripts; though not the most original setting, it at least adds a few inches of depth to the evening. It also neatly highlights Figaro’s role as the supposed director, but was otherwise an unobtrusive dramatic imposition on the opera.

David Stout (Figaro) and Anna Devin (Susanna) both gave very strong performances of great character and stamina, the former an authoritative stage presence with a pleasingly agile voice, and the latter a convincing, innocently-flustered victim, though certainly capable of handling herself. Her attractively graceful “Deh vieni, non tardar” in Act IV received a huge reception, and her interactions with Elizabeth Watts’ fluent Countess produced the most beautiful and moving scenes of the evening. It was a pity that the redemption between Countess and Mark Stone’s Count Almaviva was less convincing. Stone’s full, boldly projected voice suited the role very well, however, and his acting, bordering on the comically lecherous, was only just the right side of pantomime. 

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

Susan Bickley’s Marcellina provided great flair, switching from tyrannical crone to loving mother in a flash. Richard Wiegold (Doctor Bartolo) presented a similarly well sung caricature. Naomi O’Connell (Cherubino) sang earnestly, with admirable expressive depth. Tenor Michael Clifton-Thompson was promoted from the chorus to stand in for an indisposed Alan Oke as Dons Basilio and Curzio, doing an admirable job of both.

This is to be Lothar Koenigs’ final production as Music Director of WNO, completing a distinguished seven-year tenure. Memorable highlights have included his accounts of Meistersinger, Tristan und Isolde and Lohengrin, so this repertoire represents something perhaps less natural for him. He extracted magnificent playing from the WNO orchestra all evening, the orchestra every bit equal to his ambitious tempi and playing with a constant lightness of touch which illuminated the score from the overture to end. There was little attempt at ‘authenticity’ of period sound, but the grace and subtlety of the playing was a constant supporting presence for the singers.  The harpsichord continuo was expertly (and often wittily) realised. Koenigs’ pacing, generally on the quick side, propelled the drama along without ever threatening to sag, and made for thrilling moments, the end of Act I a notable example.

Anna Devin (Susanna) and Naomi O'Connell (Cherubino) © Richard Hubert Smith
Anna Devin (Susanna) and Naomi O'Connell (Cherubino)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The lighting and sets, designed by Ralph Koltai, are pragmatic and utilitarian. Two large, revolving panels give us fairly literal settings for each scene, be they bedrooms or courtrooms, with plenty of doors and hiding places to facilitate the chaos of the opera. The efficiency of the chaos, with each manoeuvre coming off as highly polished, must be attributed to the choreography of Denni Sayers. Sue Blane’s period costumes were superb.

Musically this was an excellent performance, and dramatically it was unashamedly straightforward and free of directorial imposition.