Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart / Da Ponte

The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart / Da Ponte.  Co-Opera directed by Tessa Bremner,  Musical Director Brian Chatterton at The Street Theatre, Canberra, March 29-30, 2011.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 29

“Co-Opera was formed in 1990 with the express purpose of presenting opera in new and imaginative ways….”  Their aim is admirably achieved in this production of Figaro, passing through Canberra on its east coast 30 performance tour from Adelaide to Port Douglas.

The singing and acting was excellent throughout, though I make no bones about being home-town biassed in praising the performance of Karen Fitz-Gibbon.  She has just last year completed her Honours year at the Australian National University School of Music, and her Susanna was close to perfect.  Hers is the central role in Bremner’s approach to Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto: Fitz-Gibbon’s timing and characterisation made the whole play work dramatically.

Now, of course, I’m forced to admit that Tessa Bremner is a one-time Canberra Critics’ Circle Award winner – for a production of Amadeus.  All I can say is that it is good to see that our award predicted continuing success, especially since the value of critics is being questioned in the blogosphere.  (Follow this up in the current Currency House Platform Papers No. 27, April 2011: HELLO WORLD! Promoting the Arts on the Web by Robert Reid, and Alison Croggon’s blog ‘The return of the amateur critic’ at,au/unleashed/20038.html)

My reason for mentioning Bremner is that she was a successful stage play director who clearly sees this opera production not as a series of platforms for singers but as a drama of plot, thinking characters and emotion.  She has integrated all these elements into the wonderful effects that Mozart’s music creates, and presented the work on a smallish scale so that her audience can all feel personally part of the theatrical illusion.  The result is that all the social criticism inherent in the original libretto is made apparent.

And, it is important to say, Bremner is served very well by a small band, in this case spread across the auditorium floor in front of Row A, conducted in the traditional way by Chatterton at the continuo.

My only thought about the originality of the show concerns the following WikiLeak – sorry, Wikipedia entry: “It was Mozart who originally selected Beaumarchais' play and brought it to Da Ponte, who turned it into a libretto in six weeks, rewriting it in poetic Italian and removing all of the original's political references. In particular, Da Ponte replaced Figaro's climactic speech against inherited nobility with an equally angry aria against unfaithful wives. Contrary to the popular myth, the libretto was approved by the Emperor, Joseph II, before any music was written by Mozart.”

Watching the performance it is obvious that Joseph II didn’t realise that the satire was too subtle for all the political references to be removed, fortunately for us for it is indeed the way that the servants Figaro and Susanna treat their ‘noble’ bosses that makes the show relevant today (as of course it was especially when Beaumarchais’ original play was banned in France in the mid-1770s).  What Co-Opera might have done is to reinstate Beaumarchais’ ‘climactic speech against inherited nobility’, which could be done especially because Da Ponte’s Italian has already been translated into English for most of this production.

For me, Figaro’s tirade against unfaithful wives seemed very much out of place against the self-confidence and sensibility of the women, who take such a modern approach to the practicalities of dealing with rampant males.  Though it is true that at this point Figaro has misunderstood what Susanna has done, the good humour and loving nature of their relationship from the beginning is far too easily blighted in his attack.  It would make much more sense for him to take the nobility to task as they deserve at this point, and as Beaumarchais intended.

Otherwise originality was to the fore.  The use of Germanic English for all of the skulduggery and Romance Italian for the love songs was a beautiful way to make even more of the music than Mozart’s Austrian audience would have heard. The costumes, with beehive head-dresses, exaggerated commedia make-up and a dress sense appropriate for each class of character made for the intelligent comedy that this opera is.  At the same time the use of clear plastic costume overlays, dressing room walls and ‘mirrors’ was an exciting modern touch which worked very well to make the meaning of the play transparent.

I wish this production well on its journey travelling north.