Eternity Opera’s “Figaro” produces the goods at Welllington’s Hannah Playhouse

Eternity Opera Company presents:
MOZART – The Marriage of Figaro (sung in English)

Cast: Figaro – Jamie Henare / Susannah – Emily Mwila
Marcellina – Marian Hawke / Dr.Bartolo – Roger Wilson
Cherubino – Elisabeth Harris / Count Almaviva – Orene Tiai
Don Basilio – Mark Bobb / Countess Almaviva – Kate Lineham
Antonio – Nino Raphael / Barbarina – Shayna Tweed
Chorus – William McElwee / Pasquale Orchard / Laura Loach
Richard Dean / Olivia Sheat / William King
Peter King / Hannah Catrin Jones / Minto Fung
Alexandra Woodhouse Appleby / India Loveday
Dancer – Jessica Short

Conductor: Simon Romanos
Director: Alex Galvin
Producer: Emma Beale

Orchestra: Douglas Beilman (Concertmaster)
Malavika Gopal, Alix van Schultze (violins)
Victoria Janecke, Brian Shilito (violas)
Lucy Gijsbers (‘cello), Lesley Hooson (d-bass)
Tim Jenkin (flute), Calvin Scott (oboe)
Mark Cookson (clarinet), Leni Mackle (bassoon)
Greg Hill, Shadley van Wyk, Dominic Groom (horns)
Christopher Hill (Spanish guitar continuo)

Hannah Playhouse, Wellington

Saturday 5th August, 2017 (until 12th August)

Having so very much enjoyed Eternity Opera’s “Don Giovanni” here in Wellington a year ago, I was looking forward to some replication of the experience with this new production of another Mozart masterpiece, “Le Nozze di Figaro” – or, to put it in the performance’s English-language context “The Marriage of Figaro”. A large part of the attraction of both productions for me was the intimacy of the Hannah Playhouse venue, enabling what seemed like for we audience members the chance in this case to “eavesdrop” on the goings-on in the household of Count Almaviva. Not only did the stage seem to “grow all around and about us”, but the reduced-in-size orchestra also appeared to be playing in the same room (rather than relegated to a submerged space (aptly-named “the pit” in most opera-houses!), the players and their sounds suddenly seeming part of the cut-and-thrust of the action.

Any thought that this close-up aspect might magnify the performance’s shortcomings and spoil the experience was effectively countered by the quality of the work done by singers and players alike. For this was, by and large, a splendidly-sung and expertly-played rendition of the great work, whose characteristics played nicely into the context of domestic intimacy and subtefuge highlighted by the venue’s settings. Risks of exposure were taken and squared up to rather than avoided, making the presentation all the more real and red-blooded.

To begin with, the Overture gave us orchestral playing of poise, energy and variation, with every section affording the ear great delight. Conductor Simon Romanos allowed plenty of ambient space for the players to sufficiently clad their phrases with tones that enabled Mozart’s phrases and melodies to both sparkle and sing – and the balances afforded by the reduced numbers allowed so much exquisite detail to figure throughout in a fresh and disarming way. Mention must be made especially of Christopher Hill’s wondrously-realised guitar-continuo-playing, which I thought added a most atmospheric dimension to the opera’s general ambience.

I noticed only one mishap which momentarily stranded both Figaro and Susannah during their opening scene, though things were quickly gotten back onto the rails in true professional style (though, was it this, I wondered, which led to the performers by-passing the duet “If by chance Madame should call you at night” (Se a caso Madama la notte te chiama) which I realised later hadn’t happened?).

The honour of opening the season’s onstage activites went to singers Jamie Henare and Emily Mwila, as Figaro and Susannah, respectively, each understandably taking a little time to “warm up” (the process of what comedian Michael Flanders once called “getting the pitch of the hall”), but conveying to us both the shared excitement and individual purpose of preparing for their oncoming marriage. Particularly vibrant, both vocally and dramatically, was Emily Mwila’s Susannah, the quicksilver nature of much of Mozart’s writing for her voice deftly and exquisitely realised, both in partnership (her duetting with Kate Lineham’s Countess brought forth some gorgeous passages, including an uncanny forerunner of Leo Delibes’ “Flower Duet” at one moment during Act Three!) and when singing solo (her teasing of a jealous Figaro with a beautiful and disarming “Come now, lovely joy” (Deh vieni non tadar), ostensibly to lure the Count to her side in the garden). Even in an “ensemble opera” like “Figaro”, moments such as those almost stole the show.

Jamie Henare’s Figaro took longer to emerge as a character, though his voice certainly had the heft and agility required by the role, as was evident as early as his famous “If you would dance, my pretty Count” (Sei vuol ballare). His was a somewhat “stiff-upper-lip” portrayal, which at first didn’t readily emote, though in Act Four he seemed to finally break out of his emotional constraints with a vigorous and impassioned “Open your eyes for a moment” (Aprite un po’quegl’occhi), enjoining all men to regard women as deceivers. His portrayal needed more of that kind of out-going expression much earlier in the piece.

Susannah’s and Figaro’s aristocratic equivalents were, of course, the Count and Countess Almaviva, each imposingly presented on stage by Orene Tiai and Kate Lineham. As the Count, Orene Tiai looked every inch an aristocrat, his dignified portrayal lacking, I thought, only that mixture of a certain hauteur of manner and self-confident swagger in both his movements and his singing to convey the requisite “born-to-rule” aspect which goes hand-in-glove with the character. By contrast, Kate Lineham’s Countess seemed to me to achieve just the right amalgam of self-assurance and vulnerability needed to bring to life her character’s essential tragic nobility. Only in the treacherously taxing Act Three “Where are the golden moments” (Dove sono) did her line occasionally show signs of strain (Mozart here both kind and cruel), and these moments were offset by her beautifully-modulated sequences in duet with Susannah, and her finely-crafted and achingly moving words of forgiveness to her husband right at the opera’s end.

As the amorous page-boy, Cherubino, Elisabeth Harris, I thought, completely “owned” her character, taking risks, both dramatically and vocally, in pursuit of love, and triumphing with a flesh-and-blood realisation that, to my way of thinking, won everybody’s heart. She captured that testosterone-laden “out-of-control” feeling almost to perfection, while credibly maintaining both theatrical and musical viability – I can’t recall seeing a Cherubino on stage more whole-hearted and lovable. She (he) was nicely-partnered by Shanya Tweed’s truly, and brightly-sung Barbarina, her “lost pin” aria touchingly voiced, and her overall character generating something of a matching physical and emotional impulsiveness to that of “the page”, able at the end to put the love-struck boy in his (her) place.

Artfully and engagingly complicating the plot’s machinations in different ways was the trio of Marcellina, Dr. Bartolo and Don Basilio, each presenting here as a delightfully formidable character. I thought Marian Hawke’s Marcellina vocally and dramatically splendid, her almost Katisha-like resolve to marry with Figaro in her sights making the situation’s Act Three denoument all the more deliciously poignant! Her sidekick was Roger Wilson’s waspish Dr. Bartolo, still smarting over the loss of his ward Rosina (who has become the Countess) and swearing revenge – a wonderfully spiteful aria “I’ll have vengeance” (La Vendetta) – for Figaro’s part in the affair (all in the previous Beaumarchais play, The Barber of Seville). His character’s delightfully rueful reaction to the same unexpected turn of events in Act Three added greatly to the comic poignancy of the scene.

The odd one out was Don Basilio, convincingly played here with sly wit and unctuous tones by Mark Bobb, his extremely mobile face putting various expressions to good use in pursuit of his master the Count’s favours, while using his voice in remarkaly varied ways – Oscar Wilde would have undoubtedly characterised him as the archetypal cynic. By contrast, Nino Raphael’s “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” portrayal of Antonio the gardener amusingly presented humanity at its most basic, tipsy for most of the time, and when sober, with a rustic’s eye for the main chance.

The chorus for each performance consists of the “other ” cast in alternation – as well as being a nice idea, one which would also enhance the feeling of a company or ensemble really “involved” with a show. Here, the chorus’s singing and dancing had plenty of properly rustic enthusiasm, and the various groupings adroitly enhanced the stage action. Alex Galvin’s direction made the most of the spaces and saw to it that the action’s main points were delivered in a clear and often delightfully whimsical way. A great success, I think – and I shall read my colleague Lindis Taylor’s review of the follwing evening’s performance by the “second” cast with interest and plenty of vicarious enjoyment!

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