Wedding of wit and beauty

25 October 2021

The sublime and the ridiculous sit side by side in West Australian Opera’s delightful The Marriage of Figaro, says Rosalind Appleby

The Marriage of Figaro, West Australian Opera ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 23 October 2021 ·

The Marriage of Figaro is one of the most popular operas in the repertoire. Every time I watch it I appreciate even more the achingly beautiful music and wit (embedded so firmly in Mozart’s score and Da Ponte’s libretto that the worst production can’t ruin it).

The West Australian Opera program this opera every six years or so and this year we are being treated to Patrick Nolan’s new production fresh from its Opera Queensland debut in July. The opera is the sequel to The Barber of Seville (performed by WAO earlier this year), and we find Figaro still bustling around arranging marriages. This time it is his own turn to find love but the complication is that his fiancé, Susanna, is being pursued by the Count, much to the dismay of the Countess Rosina.

Mozart and Da Ponte wrote the opera on the eve of the French Revolution, inspired by Beaumarchais’ subversive play. Nolan sets the story in the crumbling decadence of a grand house where the political revolution has woke overtones with a toppled headless statue and the Count snorting something that is definitely not smelling salts.

The opera’s full title is The Marriage of Figaro, or The Day of Madness and Nolan’s energetic production has a crazed feel, opening with Figaro and Susanna moving house surrounded by busy “helpers” who rearrange furniture with an Alice in Wonderland absurdity.

This physical intensity pervades the opera; the WA Opera Chorus are constantly dancing (choreography Elise May), Susanna launches at the Count with her fists and Figaro turns his “Non più andrai“ martial lecture to Cherubino into a barely veiled threat at the Count.

Prudence Sanders (Susanna) sitting on a toppled statue as she sings “Deh vieni”. Photo: James Rogers

Marg Horwell’s contemporary haute couture costumes are a visual spectacle and help make the characters relatable. The Countess (who is obviously engaging in retail therapy) has several magnificent costumes including a fabulous down parka bodice and black sequined suit.

Horwell’s clever set design has multiple doors enabling plenty of surprises and Bernie Tan-Hayes uses light and shade to create moments of grandeur and intimacy.

The operas is well cast with the soon-to-be-wed couple sung by young, personable singers. Jeremy Kleeman imbues Figaro with the lithe flamboyance of Rossini’s barber. He played Figaro for Opera Queensland and brings vocal security and charisma to the role. His Susanna is Prudence Sanders whose soubrette is as pert and sweet as you could wish for, looking every inch the girl next door in her sneakers and sweater. Sanders made her impressive WAO debut as Fiordiligi in Cosi fan tutte in 2020 and brings the same polish, immaculate control and naturalness to her Susanna.

The more senior roles are filled by legends of the Australian opera stage. Teddy Tahu Rhodes is the Count, vocally sonorous but dishevelled in his dressing gown and increasingly disempowered. Lisa Harper Brown has sung the Countess Almaviva many times and her regal bearing is matched by a steely voice.

Amy Yarham sings the role of the page Cherubino, with a warm mezzo-soprano and endearing childishness. Nicole Youl is a delight as the older Marcellina, scheming to seduce Figaro with the help of Dr Bartolo (Robert Hofmann) and Don Basilio (Matthew Lester). The comic trio are part circus act, part stand-up comedy, and the auditorium regularly erupts with laughter.

The comic trio of Matthew Lester (Don Basilio) Robert Hofmann (Dr Bartolo) and Nicole Youl (Marcellina) addressed by Jeremy Kleenman (Figaro). Photo: James Rogers

Conductor Christopher van Tuinen is alert and firm and there’s a sparkle from the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in the pit that matches the stage. Van Tuinen keeps Mozart’s many musical layers well-aligned, with a subtle forward momentum.

There are multiple highlights as all these elements come together. In Act Two (set in the countess’s bedroom) the ridiculous and the sublime sit side by side. A quartet featuring both couples is sung with exquisite musicality, each voice weaving an emotional trajectory and building into a wonderfully blended chorale. Just moments later, a well-timed collective bounce on the bed from the comic trio propels the Count onto the floor.

The psychological depth of character Mozart reveals through his musical twists and turns is enthralling. Sanders’ “Deh vieni” in Act Four is another highlight, the naïve love song given an unexpected intimacy, a window of melancholy amidst the madness.

Three hours fly by in a whirlwind and we leave, still smiling and slightly giddy, with glorious tunes ringing in our ears.

The Marriage of Figaro continues until 30 October 2021.

Pictured top: Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the Count and Prudence Sanders as Susanna in ‘The Marriage of Figaro’. Photo by James Rogers

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She is co-editor of Seesaw Magazine, author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine. She loves the percussion instruments which can be found in the uber cool parks.

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