Young Opera Venture states that its aims are to provide professional performing opportunities for young graduate singers, and to bring affordable opera performances to small venues in towns where opera isn’t normally available. Their production of The Marriage of Figaro, directed by Jane Anthony, had clearly been very carefully thought out in order to meet the needs of audiences and venues that are unaccustomed to opera, and they achieved this impressively, whilst avoiding any “dumbing down”.

Young Opera Venture
Young Opera Venture

The performance was in English, with a lively translation of Da Ponte’s libretto by Jeremy Sams that owed a lot to the exuberance of Gilbert and Sullivan. The group’s publicity emphasised their superb diction, and in the main, they did not disappoint: most of the dialogue was as clear as the spoken word, so the action was easy to follow, and of course it enables the group to perform without any need for surtitling. Mozart’s hectic ensemble scenes were sometimes tricky to follow, but this is the case with any production, and the excellent acting, particularly from the women, helped to keep the sense of what was going on.

To accommodate the performance in small venues, the staging was kept to an absolutely minimum – a couple of chairs and an iron bedstead that doubled as desk and garden bower with the addition of simple props. This simplicity was offset by luxurious costumes – an effective way to give the sense of a traditionally lavish performance, with minimal expense. Another effect of the small venue was that the twelve-piece orchestra was on stage, and conductor John Longstaff achieved a good balance between the musicians and singers; he also had a small piano, on which he accompanied some of the quieter sections.

Wendy Carr as Susanna and Sarah Ogden as the Countess gave particularly strong performances. Carr was an impish, knowing Susanna, virtuous yes, but certainly not innocent, throwing sly grins at the audience and flirting with all the men on stage. Her very light, clear voice emphasised her character’s purity and she used it to good effect in the moments when she had to be serious: she unleashed an unexpected power in her rage when she finds Figaro in Marcellina’s embrace, and her garden aria “Oh come don’t delay” began teasingly, but became more tender, showing her real devotion to Figaro. From her first entry Ogden was a wonderfully dignified Countess, her misery always apparent, but never out of control, and her her big lament “Where are they, the beautiful moments” was extremely moving. Her rich vibrato sometimes meant her diction was a little blurred, but she was lovely to listen to – and the contrast with Carr’s voice gave them scope for a bit of comic vocal imitation during the garden scene when the Countess and Susanna are disguised as each other.

The male leads both emphasised the bewilderment of Figaro and the Count as the women run rings around them. Philip Wilcox’s Count strutted proudly around without a moment of self-doubt; unaware of the schemes surrounding him, oblivious to his own hypocrisy and generating plenty of laughs. As Figaro, Miles Horner seemed at times to be emulating his boss, but generated much more sympathy – when he sang mournfully of the perfidiousness of women (picking out men in the audience, and looking them straight in the eye as he did), I wanted to jump on stage and tell him that it was all going to be OK. Both men had good solid voices, but they could both have added a bit more tone without any loss of clarity.

The supporting roles all contributed to the high-spirited humour of the production. Rhiannon Beck was a ditzy blonde Barbarina, and Neil Balfour as her father the gardener Antonio made the most of some great lines. Imogen Garner was a delightfully melodramatic Marcellina, and Richard Hansen’s exaggerated rolled Rs made Don Basilio into something of a pantomime villain. Fiona Wilkie sang the role of Cherubino beautifully, but she was a bit too soft and feminine to be a really convincing boy – oddly she managed to pull off the trick of being masculine more successfully during the scenes when she had a skirt on, becoming awkward, angular and fidgety.

This is Young Opera Venture’s first full-length production, and has clearly set the tone for what the company hopes to achieve: a full opera experience, made available to everyone. Judging by the raucous cheering from the balcony and the enthusiastic comments I overheard in the lobby, Young Opera Venture will be very warmly welcomed back to Middlesbrough. They managed to maintain the balance between comedy and seriousness that makes The Marriage of Figaro such a great work of art, and they did this in an unpretentious way, generously taking Mozart's genius to places where it so seldom reaches.