It’s usual for a company to leave some space between one production of a classic work and another, but Joe Hill-Gibbins’ new Marriage of Figaro follows immediately on from Fiona Shaw’s 2011 production, revived as recently as last season.
Despite its revivals, Shaw’s version was never deemed much of a success. Though it has its limitations, its replacement at least represents an improvement.
Its chief limitation concerns the set: our over-familiar friend the white box, which in this instance has four plain doors that come in useful for the plot’s farcical moments – providing useful hiding places for Cherubino or Susanna, for instance, at various points in Acts I and II – but is otherwise anodyne.
By Act III we’ve seen enough of it. Its potential for exploring issues of class in what is essentially an upstairs, downstairs comedy isn’t realised: simply moving it up and down isn’t enough. Nor does it help to clarify the vortex of physical intrigue in the last act, where the complex comings and goings and double disguise need to be more much sharply defined.
That said, there are strong elements. Astrid Klein’s contemporary costumes are spot-on as well as eye-catching, and particularly successful in presenting Marcellina (the always excellent Susan Bickley) as a glamorous mature woman, rather than the ‘old hag’ (as the Count calls her at one point) of tradition.
Hill-Gibbins’ direction, meanwhile, is inventive and astute: all the singers know exactly who they are, and their interaction is crisp and credible.
The quality of the singing, too, is well up to ENO’s best standards. As the Countess, Elizabeth Watts had an awkward moment towards the end of her second aria on the first night, but elsewhere her lyrical warmth is a huge asset: ditto the sparky Susanna of Louise Alder – her last-act serenade simply sublime.
Johnathan McCullough’s Count and Bozidar Smiljanic’s Figaro square off and spar effectively all evening. Hanna Hipp’s gawky but sexually precocious Cherubino is everywhere, all the time, getting in the way when he’s not getting into trouble.
Andrew Shore provides an initially vehement Bartolo, mellowing when he belatedly discovers that he’s Figaro’s father. Colin Judson’s double act as Don Basilio (more Del Boy than the usual effete cleric) and Don Curzio is unfailingly effective. Clive Bayley is luxury casting as Antonio.
Achieving lively tempi and fine balance between stage and pit is German conductor Kevin John Edusei, who also encourages some light and entirely appropriate vocal decoration: in fact the singers could go even further in that respect. But his is a welcome ENO debut and the company’s chorus and orchestra are on excellent form.
Diction, too, is strong, with practically every word of Jeremy Sams’ top-quality translation coming over – a reminder that the company’s English-language policy is one of its greatest assets.