From the opening bars of the Overture of Opera Australia’s production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro it was clear that this was going to be a production with a difference. As the orchestra began, the curtain raised to reveal a room, painted in brilliant white, with clothes rails at either end containing maids’ costumes. Gradually the maids entered in their modern clothing and began undressing and putting on their maids’ uniforms, hanging up their jeans and t-shirts on the coat hangers. As the Overture concluded, another room became visible, in which Figaro was sitting in an armchair watching a large flatscreen television.

Michael Lewis (Count Almaviva), Taryn Fiebig (Susanna), Dominica Matthews (Cherubino), © Branco Gaica
Michael Lewis (Count Almaviva), Taryn Fiebig (Susanna), Dominica Matthews (Cherubino),
© Branco Gaica

The producer, Benedict Andrews, claims: ‘I have refused to portray the characters of the opera as either costumed ghosts or buffoons, preferring to encounter them as contemporary people in states of emotional emergency.’ It is amazing how well this opera works when performed in such a way. It was Mozart with the touch of a blockbuster romantic comedy, with a combination of slapstick humour and Shakespearian farce. The modern setting served to highlight the absurdity of the confusion and misunderstanding in the plot. This was further aided by the decision to perform the opera in English, which helped convey in greater detail the interrelations of the characters.

As well as the high quality of singing at Opera Australia, I have always been impressed by the high quality of acting. This is especially important in this opera, where little asides and nuances between the characters are so important. So often in the libretto, the characters are thinking one way but have to portray a different emotion. This was all carried out with such ease by the cast that we were able to revel in the suspense and comedy of the drama.

There were several other minor touches which served to make this production unique, such as the presence on stage of a washing machine and tumble dryer in Act One, which served to make the contemporary production more plausible, as well as providing another hiding place for the characters! One of the most comic characters of the evening was that of Dr Bartolo, played by Conal Coad. He never appeared on stage without an oxygen tank and mask. Whenever the shock of the various revelations became too much for him, he would breathe through his mask, as well as during some of his more difficult arias, much to the amusement of the audience.

Underpinning all of the extraordinary features of the production was of course Mozart’s sublime musical score. Opera Australia never allowed the distractions on stage to detract from the music. The most exquisite arias were delivered simply, allowing the music to be the centre of attention, for example the Countess’ aria ‘Dove sono’ where she recalls the love she once shared with the Count. This is one of the most beautiful and simplest arias in the opera. This embodies Mozart’s genius in a nutshell, how he is able to make such simple music into something so heavenly. It was delivered in a suitably ravishing manner by Elvira Fatykhova. Indeed, there was some wonderfully expressive singing from all of the principal characters.

This was a thoroughly entertaining evening from Opera Australia, who exploited the comic elements of the opera to the full, but never to the detriment to Mozart’s incredible music which was always able to shine through.