Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Figaro’s marvellous marriage in Day’s Bay garden

By , 15/03/2010

The Marriage of Figaro
Produced by Rhona Fraser; Conducted by Michael Vinten, directed by Sara Brodie.
The Count – Matt Landreth, The Countess – Rhona Fraser, Susanna – Barbara Graham, Figaro – Daniel O’Connor, Cherubino – Bianca Andrew, Marcellina – Annabelle Cheetham, Don Basilio – John Beaglehole, Dr Bartolo – Roger Wilson, Barbarina – Sophie Mackie; village girls – Olivia Martin and Rose Blake

Canna House, Moana Road, Day’s Bay

Monday 15 March 2010

I was at the third of the three performances of this startling and brilliant staging of Mozart’s great comedy.

It was at the initiative of Rhona Fraser who was both producer and the Countess, as well as owner of the property in a natural amphitheatre against the beech forest behind Day’s Bay.

Her own background, as a singer of some enterprise, made this project look inevitable.
Music graduate of Victoria University, studies in England and several years performing small roles at English National Opera and big roles in small companies such as theatre designer and impresario Adam Pollock’s. Every summer for 30 years from 1974 he brought his English opera company to perform in an abandoned convent at his famous Batignano Festival in Tuscany. It was that that persuaded Rhona of the special fruitfulness of such intimate productions, not in the conventional opera house. Since returning to New Zealand and buying the property, she has organized charity concerts and now for the first time, an opera.
No opera could have been more right.

Rhona had met opera director Sara Brodie, when she too worked at Batignano; she was the natural choice as stage director. Her hand was alive to all the possibilities offered by the house and garden and she would have encouraged and offered creative ideas to the cast, most of whom seemed overflowing with theatrical instinct.

The weather intrudes
The Friday (first) performance was the victim of the extraordinary storm that struck that evening; those who arrived were greeted, nevertheless, with a glass of wine and an aria before turning back into the storm; and most were able to come on the ‘rain day’ on Monday. There was enough interest to have mounted another performance.

Monday was, reportedly, the best evening for the weather, with the lightest of breezes, warm temperatures, and a western sky seen through the proscenium of trees that slope down to the bay and the harbour beyond, streaked with light clouds in a beautiful sunset.

It started at 5pm, with a dinner break at 6.15 after Act II, and resumed about 7.20 so darkness fell about the start of the garden cavortings in Act IV, when charming lighting made the natural setting even more entrancing.

Setting and preparation
There’s a lot of preparation involved with a production of this kind. A major task was the preparation of an orchestral score for a much reduced instrumental ensemble. That was the task of music director Michael Vinten who has had much experience. There was a piano, played by Richard Mapp, to flesh out the sound, especially the bass, sometimes even suggesting an orchestra; Mapp also played an electronic harpsichord for the recitatives. There were one each of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn but no strings apart from a double bass. The result was musically admirable and entirely adequate to the task.

And there was no chorus apart from the principals themselves, including the two nubile Village Girls.

The way the house and garden are disposed on the property allowed the ‘stage’ and the audience to change places between the first two and the last two acts. Thus the terrace in front of the house served as Figaro’s and Susanna’s room and then the Countess’s chamber while, after the dinner hour, alterations to seating moved the performance space to the lower lawn terrace while the audience was on the upper terraces, facing west toward the harbour and the setting sun. Visibility was excellent, and the sound even more so, every word clear. For while in Acts I and II the performers had the house behind them to reflect the sound, in Acts III and IV, they sang with nothing but the view at their backs; the natural amphitheatre did the rest.

The different levels allowed for stunts like Figaro leaping over the little hedge of the top level to land on the one below; and Cherubino’s escape, not into the garden, but into the adjacent swimming pool, wet tee-shirt and all.

Then there was the libretto, in Shirmer’s English translation, apart from one of Cherubino’s arias, ‘Voi che sapete’, which Bianca Andrew sang in Italian. It was witty at times, a bit laboured at others, but helped by occasional up-dating with local, contemporary references such as Seatoun as the generalized ‘elsewhere’ and where the Count goes surfing.

My only quarrel with the translation was with Figaro’s threat, after Susanna makes him understand the Count’s intentions, that ‘he may go dancing but I’ll play my guitar’; in my head, ‘…I’ll call the tune’, has always seemed the perfect English equivalent.

The performance
Let me comment at this point about the absence of a review in Wellington’s daily paper. If this were London, one might forgive The Times or The Independent for overlooking it, but for the only daily in a small city that boasts of being a ‘cultural capital’ to ignore such a large-scale, elaborate and brilliant enterprise is lamentable. In total over 600 people saw it, far more than most Fringe Festival events that the paper has been covering.

The overture began with the accompaniment of comings and goings of those who would be identified later, ending with the two who we could assume were about to become Figaro and Susanna, kissing. As their scene was about to begin, with them preoccupied, Vinten tapped his baton on the desk to call them to order. It set the tone.

Figaro, Daniel O’Connor,  is suitably young, perhaps a little too young – for this is the man-of-the-world who, in The Barber, was the engineer of the Count’s winning of Rosina against extraordinary odds. He can afford to be more mature than his master. Never mind.

Bianca Andrew, the Cherubino, was no less vivid; she will be remembered as Ino in last year’s Semele from the New Zealand School of Music, as one of Wendy Dawn Thompson’s companions in her recital and in January at the New Zealand Opera School at Wanganui. Her delivery was stylish and coloured with nice emphases on some words.

The Count’s other obsession is surfing; his (Matt Landreth’s) arrival in wetsuit and surfboard at two points titillated as he stripped to a body stocking. He displayed a stage confidence, looks and vocal style that fitted the role splendidly, though it might be unlikely that a surfie would be named as ambassador to London; there was little outward dignitas  of which even less remained after the succession of shameful revelations starting in the first act with Cherubino’s overhearing the Count’s plans involving Susanna, a scene alive with adroit movement and timing.

Costumes were ‘period’ apart from the Count.

Susanna was sung by Barbara Graham who has been attracting attention in the past couple of years. With a well-formed, excellently trained soprano and vivid stage presence, she was a model Susanna: pretty, bright, daring. She’s shortly on her way to Paris for coaching and for auditions.

To get a performance of little over two hours many cuts were needed. One I particularly missed was the spunky duet between Susanna and Marcellina; we had only the preliminary foretaste. Marcellina was far from being a Katisha. Annabelle Cheetham, her voice full of character, created a woman of uncertain years, lively, prickly, but not ultimately uncharitable; thus her role in the first act was not inconsistent with the reconciliation in the third.

Rhona Fraser as the Countess gave an exemplary performance; a voice in good shape, the right demeanour, sad disillusionment born with dignity, yet the ability to see through the last act with a warm sense of humour and spirit. She had cast herself very well and her two big arias were serious, impressive singing.

The two roles of Dr Bartolo and the gardener, Antonio were distinctly delineated by baritone Roger Wilson, voice splendid, and costumes outlandish. Tenor John Beaglehole was a very well cast Don Basilio, at once weasely and sympathetic, his voice now of good operatic proportions.

Sophie Mackie sang Barbarina pertly, and intentionally, no doubt, without too much polish.

It all ended as darkness enveloped the garden, and the always chaotic disguises, dissemblings, revenges, misunderstandings, umbrages, and the final exposure and irredeemable humiliation of the count, enacted in a real garden, with people emerging from bushes and escaping down gravel paths, had the audience entranced as they could not possibly have been in any ordinary opera theatre.

I’m sure there are other Rhona Frasers and Sara Brodies around New Zealand who could help transform the starved, struggling opera scene in New Zealand, given some resources. It’s time Creative New Zealand woke up to its real responsibilities towards the real arts and got behind initiatives such as this in a serious way.

For this was the sort of performance that contributes, not merely to the great pleasure of the audience, but also to the process of training talented singers in the business of opera. It did all these things superbly well.

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