By Amy Price.
Durham Opera Ensemble’s first production at the Gala Theatre, The Marriage of Figaro was a credit to the company’s already excellent reputation.
As a newcomer to opera, I wasn’t at all sure what to expect from the show. I was slightly apprehensive of the long running time, and even more concerned that the whole concept would go beyond my powers of understanding.
I was delighted that every negative cliché about opera was to be proven wrong by this performance.
Firstly, director Rebecca Meltzer must be commended for her astounding interpretation of the classic opera. I would not automatically associate the swinging ‘60s in all its mini-skirted glory with Mozart, but the change of scene gave the performance a freshness that was appreciated by all. Whilst some of the dance moves jarred slightly with the music, it was undeniably entertaining to see the chorus jiving away.
The new setting also made for a dynamic aesthetic. Costumes were exciting, with bright pink jump-suits and Piet Mondrian-style mini-dresses; Clare Lichfield, Laura Thomlinson and Fiona Brindle did an excellent job in drawing out the era’s fashions. Lizzie McGhee must also be given credit for her stunning hair and make-up designs, which made the costumes all the more authentic. Meltzer’s set design (constructed by Mike Brown) made full use of the Gala’s impressive capacity for ambitious tech, with flown-in trellises and enormous windows at the back of the stage.
Then there was the performance itself. My earlier interview with the cast and crew of the show had promised that the English translation chosen would be ‘funny’. I was somewhat sceptical of this claim, confident that Mozart’s humour wouldn’t quite be the same as my own… I was proven wrong, as the lyrics had an undeniable wit that matched the light-hearted tone of much of the music.
In particular, Marnell Blair in her ‘trouser role’ Cherubino did much to make the audience laugh. The cross-dressing (with Blair in the awkward position of being a girl playing a boy playing a girl) was well performed, as was her expression of a teenage boy’s random lust. To quote Sussana, Blair was ‘really rather charming’, and she managed to balance the character’s tone well within her beautiful singing voice.
Praise must also go to Aaron Prewer-Jenkinson, John Turner-Smith and Lewis Whyte for their performances as Bartolo, Don Basilo and Antonio respectively; all three were wonderfully dedicated to their roles, combining strong singing voices with strong performances as actors. Like Blair, they were charismatic as well as immensely funny.
However, for me, the stand-out performances came from Janelle Lucyk as Sussana, and Tara Love as Countess Almaviva. Lucyk was effortless in her portrayal as the servant Sussana, her crisp singing near-perfect throughout the show, even as she reclined across armchairs and was embraced by the many men attracted to her. Meanwhile Love’s was entirely convincing, her soaring voice especially captivating in her solo mid-way through Act III, as the Countess considers her marriage.
Of course, these two were well supported by the impressive Figaro (Tom Rowarth) and the sleazy Count Almaviva (Crispin Lord), as well as by the hilarious Marcellina (Emer Acton) and beautiful Barberina (Ella Phillips). Indeed, the whole cast was surprisingly strong: who knew there were so many talented opera singers in Durham?
Admittedly, there were also some minor details that subtly detracted from the over-all experience. The doors seemed clumsy and slightly out-of place with the rest of the minimal set, but I can see that they were necessary to the plot. Similarly, the impeccable costumes could have done without the distracting capes worn by Sussana and the Countess in the final scenes. As with nearly every production, the scene changes could have been slightly slicker.
But on this note, I must return to praise. Whilst the scene changes were slightly cumbersome, Musical Director Harry Castle and his orchestra successfully smoothed over the movement on stage with their impeccable playing. It’s slightly paradoxical, but I find the sign of a good orchestra is when you don’t really notice them; nothing went wrong, everything was exactly as it should have been in singing and playing alike.
Despite my apprehensions, this was an accessible piece of opera performed in an immensely professional way. It had its glitches, but overall it was engaging and I can only hope that no one is put off from seeing it by the unfortunate stigma now often associated with opera singing.
So I must slightly alter my initial phrasing: this was not just DOE’s ‘first’ production at the Gala Theatre, but also (I hope), their ‘inaugural’ one; as surely, after this success, they’ll be back for more next year.
Photography: Kyle Wong