CELEBRATE Voice, Salisbury’s unique festival of vocal talent, from grand opera to stand-up comedy, returned to Mozart, after last year’s triumphant Don Giovanni, with a vivacious production of The Marriage of Figaro.
The new venue, the pop-up Piccolo Theatre in the Market Place, made an intimate setting for this year’s opera, with its bitter-sweet story of love, jealousy and the tensions between the lustful Count and his quick-witted servants.
Beaumarchais’ play, Le Mariage de Figaro, written in 1778, on which Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte, closely based their opera, is a story set on the cusp of huge social upheaval. Its denunciation of aristocratic privilege has been characterised as foreshadowing the French Revolution, which began in 1789. The revolutionary leader Georges Danton said that the play “killed off the nobility.”
Figaro, the one-time barber of Seville (the first of Beaumarchais’ trilogy), is now Count Almaviva’s valet. The Count is bored with his beautiful wife and is pursuing pretty servants, such as the willing Barbarina and her cousin Susanna, who is about to be married to Figaro.
A cheeky page, Cherubino, is desperate for anything in skirts, but worships the Countess, who is understandably miserable at her husband’s neglect and infidelity – and frightened by his violent jealousy.
The marriage of Figaro and Susanna is a first chance for Almaviva to show his commitment to his own decision no longer to exercise the notorious “droit de seigneur” – the right of the lord of the manor to have the bride-to-be before her husband. The Count is having second thoughts, obsessed as he is with the delightful Susanna.
Beaumarchais/Mozart are openly challenging both the old feudal order and the ruthless treatment of women of all classes.
Director Richard Studer and his designer Tamsin Gray subtly placed the moral issues at the heart of the comedy, with a black and white theme, with minimal set and beautiful monochrome costumes. For me, sitting in the back row, the black and white make-up was too much – too many lines on young faces and rather disturbing black lips. It must have looked cartoonish for those nearer the stage.
Celebrate Voice artistic director Lynsey Docherty assembled a first class cast for this most loved of comic operas, led by the vivacious Daisy Brown as Susanna and handsome, energetic Nick Dwyer as Figaro. Philip Smith, last year’s charismatic Don Giovanni, was the Count, by turns angry, lustful, jealous and baffled. His put-upon but resourceful Countess was Amy Blake, and Anna Starushkevych gave a terrific performance as the over-sexed page.
Lynsey herself was playing Marcellina, but at the performance I attended, she had lost her voice, and mimed the role expertly, supported by the wonderful mezzo-soprano Anne Marie Owens, who stepped in at short notice to sing from the side. Perfect co-ordination ensured that if you didn’t know Lynsey wasn’t singing, you might not have noticed!
Among the other roles, the veteran tenor Bonaventure Bottone showed he can steal any scene, as Basilio and the lawyer Don Curzio, Matthew Tomko was a handsome Don Bartolo, Robert Gildon clowned well as Antonio, and Bethany Woolsgrove was a flirtatious little minx as Barbarina.
Bethany, from Salisbury, had an unexpected extra role at the opening performance – Daisy Brown was also struggling with a throat bug. After singing beautifully for the first two acts, she needed help in the second half, singing the recitatives and acting the part, with Bethany singing the arias from the sidelines.
It is a tribute to the professionalism and musical ability of the whole company that it all went smoothly. The final scenes, with their swapped and mistaken identities and characters hiding in arbours and grottoes, worked like musical clockwork.
Hopefully the sore throats and lost voices returned for the later performances, but congratulations on a delightful afternoon of Mozartian magic.