THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO, Opera Australia at the Sydney Opera House; February 6-March 24 2012. Photos by Branco Gaica. Main: Dominica Matthews, Taryn Fiebig. Right: Conal Coad and Jacqueline Dark.
IS THERE ANYTHING DREARIER than sitting in a theatre staring at the curtain while the orchestra barrels through the overture? Well yes - listening to people bitching about Benedict Andrews and reciting their list of reasons why they hate his work. So the opening scene of his new production of The Marriage of Figaro is a mini-triumph in more ways than one. Not since Lindy Hume's electrifying Carmen has an overture been so enthralling.
The orchestra begins, the curtain goes up on a white, bare and brightly lit room and women begin to enter, one by one, twos, threes. They're chatting, laughing, one munches an apple, another sucks on a take-away coffee; another is busy texting. They're in street clothes, they're arriving for work. On either side of the room are racks; hanging on the racks are generic uniform dresses - waitresses wear such outfits, nurses, kitchen and chambermaids too. The women change into the uniforms: neat white collars and cuffs on a pale green shift; crisp white apron tied over. They begin to disappear again - off to their duties. One remains - Susanna, personal maid to Countess Almaviva - and she walks across the room carrying her wedding veil as the room begins to slide stage right. She opens a door and walks through. And that's the overture and without a word being said we know a lot. We are in a large establishment where there are plenty of low-ranking workers and one at least who has some kind of status and significance and is about to marry.
Revealed in the next white room is Count Almaviva, curled up on a sofa watching a huge TV. Susanna immediately has to deal with the robe-wrapped Count's priapic antics before escaping. In this context it's instantly clear how much more is at stake and in play. This is a hideously modern dilemma as Susanna, armed only with her neat uniform and personal dignity, fends off the lecherous assumptions and demands of the alpha male Almaviva. And the name that immediately springs to mind is Dominique Strauss-Kahn. In that instant, any reasonable person would have to agree that there's no justification in pandering to the chocolate box set and allowing Figaro to remain as a frilly relic of centuries past.
Despite Almaviva's blandishments Susanna reaches the comparative safety of yet another room. This one, equipped with a washing machine and dryer, has been kindly allocated to her and Figaro – the Count's security man – as their married living quarters. Figaro thinks it's really thoughtful of Almaviva to place them equidistant between their respective employers. Susanna isn't convinced: how much easier it will be for Figaro to be sent off on errands and for Susanna to be readily available to the Count.
Droit de seigneur - the right of the lord to bed a young woman before her wedding night, or his right to give permission for the marriage - is at the heart of the Mozart-da Ponte comic opera, based on Beaumarchais's play. Whether droit de seigneur was ever a legal right - as it is in the opera and play - is probably not so, but what was true and which remains true, is that powerful men do assume they can take what they like when it comes to sex and pretty young women. The shenanigans of the Figaro plot, therefore, are all about Susanna and Figaro thwarting Almaviva while not jeopardising their jobs and lives.
Figaro also has to wriggle his way out of an IOU to Marcellina, an older woman who is determined that he should honour his debt and marry her. She's aided in this endeavour by Bartolo who is still ticked off at Figaro for thwarting is own marriage to Rosina, now Countess Almaviva. Yet another sub-plot - and a poignant one because it is a sub-plot - is that of the Countess. She knows only too well that while her husband can and does root any woman he fancies, her own flirtation with the boy Cherubino could well be fatal for him and social disaster for her. These bizarre story lines are important mainly in the way they inspired and showcase some of Mozart's most sublime vocal music; and also because of the absurdity of the comedy. Cloaking the truth in laughter served Mozart well: he could poke poisonous fun at his patrons with impunity.
You could say that director Andrews and designer Ralph Myers have done the same with this production. It's musically splendid, dramatically and comically on target and yet there is enough scabrous, batty humour to have provoked a few boos on opening night - at the end of the first act and also at the end when the response was overwhelmingly joyous. The mischief began before opening night, however, when it was announced that the setting was going to be a gated community such as those that now dot South Africa, the USA and Noosa.
There's not a gate in sight, but what they have devised is a way of clearing away the clutter of 400 years and placing the singers, the ideas, the comedy and the action front and centre. Oddly, however, despite the stark white box-rooms, it's also sumptuous to look at with some fabulous moments with silver helium balloons, banquet table settings and the night-time garden where the lover-swapping takes place in a dreamlike space represented by the Andrews favourite of multi-coloured petals twirling silently from on high.
Andrews and conductor Simon Hewett are blessed with a terrific cast. Taryn Fiebig - Susanna - continues to thrill as singer and actor; Elvira Fatykhova is a sad yet girlish Countess, especially in her tremulous relationship with Cherubino. As that saucy page, Dominica Matthews is a star. Not only does she acquit herself brilliantly when it comes to Cherubino's marvellous music, but she is also Opera Australia's best "boy" since Suzanne Johnston's Hansel.
Another wonderful Mozart woman is Marcellina and Jacqueline Dark is both funny and touching as she makes the impossible transition from gloriously predatory cougar to - omigod, he's my son! - when Figaro's parentage comes to light. The guys are also up there with the gals and the physical and vocal contrast between Joshua Bloom as Figaro and Michael Lewis as the Count is dramatically and visually satisfying. The rangy, handsome younger man, in his starched white uniform shirt, epitomises the one seen in photographs standing just behind the stocky, older, yet madly virile big boss.
Virility is not something that bothers the music master, Don Basilio. With polished, shaven head and clad in elegant pastels with a sweater knotted around his shoulders, Kanen Breen is as camp as a row of tents and characteristically hilarious in the role, even when apparently sexually assaulted by the deer left over from the Count's hunt (be very careful how you say that if reading aloud). Conal Coad, meanwhile, makes the comic most of his character props – a walking frame and portable oxygen kit - while reminding us that while he might act decrepit but can still hold the vocal line with the best of them. The same can be said of Clifford Plumpton as the gardener, Antonio. His muddy boots and outrage at the damage done to a pot of geraniums is a master class in comic acting and singing all on its own.
The creative team is also the classiest of acts. As well as Andrews and Myers, Alice Babidge has achieved another triumph with costumes that range from the sad maids' uniforms to full and extravagant formal regalia and a wedding outfit for Marcellina that has her channelling Maria Venuti. Nick Schlieper lights the tricky structures and movable feasts with his usual wit and precision and makes magic where magic is required. The extensive choreography by Lucy Guerin is witty and fun, yet also highlights Mozart's commentary on the plight of women and girls as, for instance, the young, gorgeous popsies strut their stuff even as little girls innocently perform ribbon dances. All in all, this newly-minted Marriage is one made in heaven - with added devilish bits.