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Hackney Empire, London

The Beast from the East nearly ruined the first night of ETO’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro. There were a lot of empty seats at the Hackney Empire – presumably folk were concerned about travel through the snowy wilds of East London. Such a pity because what was on offer was another of ETO’s excellent productions of classic operas that can be transported around the country to venues where top quality opera like this is not often on offer. Some fine singing, some quirky characterisation, and the ETO’s brilliant orchestra under the baton of the splendid Christopher Stark provided an evening of real pleasure.

Count Almaviva is tired of his wife and lusts after her maid Susanna. She is betrothed to Figaro, the Count’s valet, and the action takes place on the day of their intended marriage. The story is about the way that Figaro and Susanna, aided by the Countess, outwit the lustful Count but the subtext is the subversive message that the lower classes are just too smart for the aristocrats. It’s also full of “me too” moments which can mean that this sublime opera written in 1786 can feel full of up-to-the-minute relevance with no need for directors to feel compelled to dress the cast in mini-skirts and Doc Martens.

Some say that the opera should be called the Marriage of Susanna and it would certainly have been justified here on account of the engaging performance of Rachel Redmond. She sang the role with total assurance – the wonderful “Deh Vieni” aria in the final scene was delightfully sung with just that sense of erotic anticipation that it needs to bring home the underlying passions beneath the comedy. And the perky, no-nonsense spirit of Susanna shone through all the fumbling advances of the Count.

Ross Ramgobin’s Figaro was just as engaging, his comic timing was great though the voice was not always quite on top of the role. Nadine Benjamin’s Countess is all ice cold dignity – she has a splendid soprano voice that gets stronger as the performance progresses and her partnership with Susanna as they plot to return Almaviva to matrimonial propriety works a charm. Dawid Kimberg as the Count has a fine baritone but he looks ill at ease in his authentic but unforgiving wig and lacks that spark of sexy charm that can make the sexual predator a little less hateful. No space here to pay tribute to the range of other characters but the ensemble is already working well and after a few more performances will be even better. The wonderful moment when Figaro finds out who his real parents are – and Mozart’s music reaches the heights of genius – was sung with real beauty and with a fine sense of the way that heartfelt emotion can burst through comedy in Mozart’s operas.

Director Blanche McIntyre is clearly constrained by the need to have a set that travels well and cheaply – the blue folding screen backdrop and the period costumes were serviceable but a bit dull. But some of the compromises were less easy to overlook. Having no chorus means that some key moments lose their bite and the removal of Figaro’s brilliant and angry “aprite un po” aria in the final scene is unfortunate. And what I missed most was sense of the underlying politics of class conflict that can give this opera real edge even today. But these are minor reservations and the real message is that this production is thoroughly enjoyable and, with a bit of fine tuning on the road, is well on the way to becoming top-notch.

  • Opera
  • By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Librettist: Lorenzo da Ponte
  • Director: Blanche McIntyre
  • Conductor: Christopher Stark
  • Producer: English Touring Opera
  • Cast includes: Nadine Benjamin, Dawid Kimberg, Ross Ramgobin, Rachel Redmond.
  • Hackney Empire, London
  • 28th February, on tour until 9 June 2018

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

Owen Davies was brought up in London but has Welsh roots. He was raised on chapel hymns, Handel oratorios and Mozart arias. He began going to the theatre in the 1960s and, as a teenager, used to stand at the back of the Old Vic stalls to watch Olivier's National Theatre productions. He also saw many RSC productions at the Aldwych in the 1960s. At this time he also began to see operas at Covent Garden and developed a love for Mozart, Verdi, and Richard Strauss. After a career as a social worker and a trade union officer, Owen has retired from paid employment but as a 'mature student' he has recently gained a certificate in Opera Studies from Rose Bruford College.​

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