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The Barber of Seville/The Marriage of Figaro/Figaro Gets a Divorce review at Wales Millennium Centre – ‘a gorgeously scored new opera’

Mark Stone and Elizabeth Watts in the WNO Marriage of Figaro at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff. Mark Stone and Elizabeth Watts in the WNO Marriage of Figaro. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
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The theme of Welsh National Opera’s spring season is ‘Figaro Forever’, a tribute to the character created by Beaumarchais and subsequently immortalised in operas by Mozart and Rossini. Design is in the venerable hands of 91-year-old Ralph Koltai, offering an infinitely adaptable semi-abstract set emulated in all three works in the season, which kicks off with Sam Brown’s slapstick production of The Barber of Seville.
Together with Sue Blane’s wackily unhistorical costumes, the result is short on context but gets many of the belly laughs for which it clearly aims; yet we don’t have much idea of who Richard Wiegold’s grandly solid Don Basilio or Maltese light tenor Nico Darmanin’s Count Almaviva are meant to be, let alone where or when.

In Blane’s costumes, Claire Booth’s soprano Rosina seems unnecessarily sexualised; her singing could be stronger, as could that of Nicholas Lester’s Figaro, who needs more definition and vitality to take centre stage, but Andrew Shore knows exactly how Dr Bartolo should go. Overall this is an evening of amiable tomfoolery, lifted to a higher level by the conducting of young James Southall.

The Marriage of Figaro is the work of director Tobias Richter, who plays the piece in the unusual mixture of Blane’s period costumes within Koltai’s modernist metal sets. Mark Stone excels as the Count, a charismatic presence whose honed baritone commands attention, though Elizabeth Watts’ fraught Countess has a few awkward moments. Anna Devin makes a vocally neat Susanna, with David Stout a Figaro stronger in voice than in personality.

Naomi O’Connell’s Cherubino sings sweetly, though she fails to suggest the maleness of her character. Richard Wiegold’s voluminous bass makes a strong impression as the elderly Dr Bartolo, consistently outflanked though he is by the more pro-active Marcellina of Susan Bickley. Lothar Koenigs conducts conscientiously.

The season culminates in the world premiere production of Figaro Gets a Divorce, based by librettist/director David Pountney on Odon von Horvath’s 1936 play, and set to music by Russian-born Elena Langer. The central team of Mozartian characters, plus some new additions – notably Angelika (Rhian Lois) and Serafin (Naomi O’Connell), the innocent children of the world-weary older generation – are transferred into the uncertainties and insecurities of the 1930s, when they have become refugees. The narrative feels episodic and hard to follow, but Langer’s score has a good deal going for it: some genuine lyricism, rich harmonies, and gorgeous orchestration.

Intervening strikingly in the action is the villainous figure of the blackmailing Major, played with memorable malice by Alan Oke, and that of the ambiguous Cherub, a nightclub owner who turns out to be the long-lost Cherubino, returned to life and delivered with some vocal flamboyance by counter-tenor Andrew Watts. Justin Brown conducts a fluent performance of an intriguing piece that leads some of opera’s most famous characters into a new context and a new century.

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A farcical romp, an appealing and conscientiously conducted Figaro and a gorgeously scored new opera