Figures in the Garden
The Marriage of Figaro – Opera buffa in four Acts to a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte after the comedy La folle journée, ou Le mariage de Figaro, by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais [sung to a translation by Jeremy Sams in English in an orchestral arrangement by Leo Geyer]
Figures in the Garden
William Ball, Flora McKendrick & Alice Ratcliffe (oboes), Matthew Wilsher & Eleanor Newman (clarinets), Joel Roberts & Lucy Burbidge (horns), Emily Newman & Joe O’Connor (bassoons)/Bertie Baigent
Choreographer – Hubert Essakow
The Marriage of Figaro
Count – Jerome Knox
Countess – Alison Langer
Susanna – Jessica Cale
Figaro – Adam Maxey
Cherubino – Annie Reilly
Marcellina – Katherine Crompton
Bartolo – Edmund Danon
Basilio – Lawrence Thackeray
Barbarina – Eleanor Sanderson-Nash
Antonio – Ashley Mercer
Rt Hon Hugo Almaviva II – Ted Thackeray
Waterperry Opera Festival Chorus & Orchestra
Isabelle Kettle – Director
Charlotte Henery – Designer
Sean Gleason – Lighting Designer
Alex Gotch – Movement Director
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 13 August, 2022
Venue: Waterperry Gardens, Waterperry, Wheatley, Oxfordshire, England
Isabelle Kettle’s production is a Marriage of Figaro for our times. Such is the opera’s ubiquity that, necessarily, it has to be tweaked or updated somehow to be made more ‘relevant’, but that often simply means transposing its intricate action to a setting somewhere nearer in time or place to the intended audience and altering the costumes accordingly.
Kettle digs deeper, however, into some of the fundamental currents of the opera’s perennial dissection of social and emotional relations among humans. It sets the action in the present day, even if the characters’ wardrobe largely resembles that of the 1990s, and in something like a drably C&A style at that (though the Countess rightly looks a degree more elegant, when in her evening dress). But there is also something consciously chic about that, given the present revival of this style as a newly cool fashion amongst today’s younger generation who are too young to remember that decade or were even born after it ended. More pointedly still, that appears to be the generation of the majority of the performers here, and it may poignantly remind an audience any older than them that, here in 2022, we live at a time of comparative social inequality and entrenched interests after more than of a decade of Tory governments, just as was the case in the middle of the 1990s. This young cast therefore play out a scenario that, in its essentials, remains as true now as it was thirty or so years ago, and as it was for Mozart and da Ponte in the 1780s. In case the point were missed, the estate workers appear during the Count’s self-pitying Act Three aria ‘Vedrò mentr’io sospiro’, labouring to set out the furnishings and paraphernalia for the wedding celebrations whilst the Count asks himself why he must ‘suffer’ seeing his servants happier than himself. It might give also give the audience pause for thought that, just as so many workers go about maintaining Waterperry Gardens, the set is partly assembled from items carried in one of the estate’s vans that crosses between us and the stage from the gardens themselves during the Overture, breaking down the dramatic fourth wall to remind us where we are and that the setting and objects of our enjoyment don’t just arise from nowhere or nobody’s efforts.
Alongside its politics, the production (in Jeremy Sams’s voluble translation) makes a telling recognition of, and comment upon, female sexual emotion by presenting Cherubino as a woman (the role is almost always taken by a female singer after all). That radically transforms the nature of the relations between her and the other female characters she comes into contact with or feels smitten by and leads to some thought-provoking ramifications. It acknowledges that female sexuality may naturally be as fluid and complicated as men’s, a point strikingly made by having the Countess linger in uncertain attraction to Cherubino when the latter sings her love song ‘Voi che sapete’. If Figaro – and, for that matter, Don Giovanni – are typically considered as explorations of male sexuality, then it is surely apt that female erotic inclinations also be brought under scrutiny, just as Mozart and Da Ponte were to do more explicitly in Cosí fan tutte; and just as those three operas all exist as, at some level, a dialogue amongst themselves, then it is entirely reasonable to bring out that strand in Figaro. In short, it enriches and deepens the already ingenious complexity of this drama, and the sympathy which composer and librettist brought to bear upon the foibles of human behaviour.
More immediately that enables some of the work’s comic ironies and connections to be drawn out all the more sharply – for example, the plan in Act Two to dress up a now lesbian Cherubino as more ‘feminine’ sexual bait for the Count; the latter’s jealous suspicion that the Countess may be unfaithfully entertaining the advances of the female Cherubino; the fact that, if Cherubino has any romantic success with the female retainers of the Count’s household, then they may have, correspondingly, less (heterosexual) interest in him. Those homosexual undercurrents are also ironically realised when, at the wedding dance at the end of Act Three, Figaro gets his wish (expressed in Act One’s ‘Se vuol ballare’) literally to lead the Count in a dance to which he calls the tune; and, if the Countess is seen as vaguely considering her feelings about Cherubino, then once or twice we might also wonder what draw there almost seems to be between the Count and Don Basilio. Whole other discourses of sexual, gender and social politics are implied by the novel addition in this production of seeing the baby heir to the Count and Countess, the ‘Right Honourable Hugo Almaviva II’ – the hard graft and patience of his upbringing naturally left to the Countess as we see her frustrations at his incessant crying on her first appearance, before launching into a more than usually desperate ‘Porgi amor’ as a result.
Choreographically this open-air production could hardly use its setting more appropriately – with the stage directly in front of the serene 18th century façade of Waterperry House, and the gardens all around. The house stands in for the Count’s manor and the gardens come into their own for the nocturnal revels of Act Four in ways that are rarely replicated so convincingly in fully resourced indoor theatres. In a visually arresting moment, a dummy representing Cherubino is hurled down from the balustrade around the top of the three-storey building to depict her escape from the Count’s rage in Act Two, and such (self)defenestration is neatly paralleled by the descent of a wedding cake from a window in the house during the celebrations. The attendants also retire to the central hall of the house in Act Four from where the rave is graphically seen in silhouette and heard by the audience, taking place over the garden scene below.
The cast are as keenly committed in performance as the production team, above all Adam Maxey’s confident, puckish portrayal of the title character, underlined by his sturdy singing, very much more bass than baritone. Jessica Cale is no less commanding as a constant, forbearing Susanna, often serious in character and musical depiction, whilst Alison Langer’s steely delivery of the Countess’s two arias show her to be a no mean figure to be reckoned with. By contrast Jerome Knox is quite a reserved Count – seemingly already resigned to having to concede to superior forces. Annie Reilly emphasises the new perspective upon Cherubino as one of those new social realities, alongside Figaro and Susanna, by making her sound a touch more mature and thoughtful than usual, rather than simply a lovable rogue. Consistently armed with an electric guitar like a modern wandering minstrel, Lawrence Thackeray is a breezy Basilio, whilst Edmund Danon’s Bartolo often seems the more put upon as a modern GP. Ashley Mercer gives a particularly robust account of the gardener, Antonio, with West Country accent.
Despite an arrangement of the score featuring no trumpets or timpani, and only one instrument to the remaining parts, Bertie Baigent conducts a vivid and constantly engaged account, alert to each nuance and turn of events in the music. Each number not only creates suitable dramatic tension but also develops sufficient contrast in scale, from the intimate and conversational, to the extrovert and grandiose. Here is surely a fine opera conductor in the making, and it will be an exciting prospect to hear him lead a full ensemble in the theatre.
Overall this is the most rewarding and stimulating Figaro I have seen for a while. Even if it is its very ephemerality that makes the experience of music theatre so enthralling, this production would lose nothing if its life were prolonged beyond the three performances of this festival. Its ideas deserve a wider airing and the chance of being developed on a permanent stage with greater resources, and they would do worse than being realised by these performers.
Preceding this performance of the opera, but presented elsewhere at Waterperry Gardens and with an interval (so not strictly integrated as a double bill) was Jonathan Dove’s Figures in the Garden. Originally commissioned by Glyndebourne in 1991 for the bicentenary commemoration of Mozart’s death, this ‘musical ode’ was Dove’s contribution to that festival’s offerings that year, being a choreographed serenade to precede performances of The Marriage of Figaro. Not only does this (like the other contributions) take inspiration from the opera it was paired with, but as a serenade for woodwind, it draws on Mozart’s own distinctive and respected contributions to the genre of Harmoniemusik, or music written for wind ensembles, usually designed to be performed in the open air.
The several movements of Figures in the Garden occasionally hint at fragments of themes in Mozart’s opera – most notably the Countess’s pronouncement of forgiveness, coming in Dove’s work like a brief cessation of activity, wistfully looking over the music’s shoulder as Mozart does near the end of the Gran Partita. But the Mozartian influence is more pronounced in the music’s teeming vitality, the nine instrumentalists cheerfully gurgling, bubbling, or whimpering in accompaniment to the six dancers who elegantly choreograph alternate scenarios to scenes from the operas. Again, Baigent’s conducting ensures detailed attention to the lively rhythms and dynamics of the score which, like Mozart’s, seems merrily and tantalisingly to flit away into nothing scarcely before it has begun, so enticing is the music.