English National Opera has a tradition of inviting artists from other spheres to try their hand at directing opera. Not all have triumphed, but, with the arguable exception of Terry Gilliam whose production of The Damnation of Faust last May was a revelation, no invitation in recent years can have worked out so well as the one extended to actress Fiona Shaw. She made her ENO debut directing Riders to the Sea in 2008, tackled Hans Werner Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers in 2010, and now takes on possibly the greatest comic opera of all time.
Set across a single day, the plot sees Figaro and Susanna’s wedding plans derailed when their master, the Count, attempts to reassert the droit de seigneur, the right of the lord to enjoy the first night with a new bride. As Figaro strives to thwart the Count, Susanna to protect her virtue, and the Countess to prevent her husband’s infidelity, more and more characters wade into the action, which witnesses double crossing, as well as cross dressing, in abundance.
Shaw has decided that Figaro could not be set in the modern day, as would have been her preference, because the droit de seigneur is too alien a concept. She therefore decided to represent the house where the action takes place as a maze, within which people can physically and symbolically become lost. It is an idea that in the wrong pair of hands could have fallen flat on its face. Representing a three-dimensional maze, so that the action throughout it can be seen, on a proscenium stage is not easy, and even in Peter McKintosh’s impressive set it sometimes feels as if we are staring at a series of straight walls rather than a circular construction. In addition, although Shaw felt that mazes are intrinsically eighteenth century, the net result of the stage being dominated by bleached white walls is that the action feels devoid of context.
The dynamism that the staging brings, however, more than compensates for any potential problems. With a rotating set, we really feel that activity occurs constantly throughout this large house. In the first scene a man mops the corridor outside Susanna’s bedroom while another cleans his scythe and, looking like the grim reaper, hints at the troubles ahead. When Susanna and Marcellina trade insults in ‘Via, resti servita, madama brillante’ (you won’t, of course, hear those words in Jeremy Sams’ smooth and witty English translation) they go on a tour of the house that sees Marcellina splatter the kitchen with flour. When Dr Bartolo and then the gardener wade into the action they are not forced to appear inappropriately in the bedroom, as can happen in productions that use a single set.
There is also an exquisite attention to detail, and some beautiful touches. Symbolically, the Count is the Minotaur at the centre of the maze who devours women, and so Figaro, as the Barber of Seville, puts his razor to a horned skull as an indication of what he would like to do. The music teacher Don Basilio is made blind, which has a nice impact on the scene where the Count and youth Cherubino end up hiding. The Count doesn’t really need to obscure himself at all, and when Cherubino is discovered, Basilio continues singing entirely oblivious to the fact.
Amongst the strong cast, Elizabeth Llewellyn as the Countess stands out, with her beautiful renditions of ‘Porgi, amor’ and ‘Dove sono’. Her performance is all the more remarkable since she only stepped in to opening night at the eleventh hour, replacing an ailing Kate Valentine. Two ENO stalwarts, Iain Paterson and Roland Wood, are in sturdy form as Figaro and the Count, while Devon Guthrie is a delightful Susanna. Kathryn Rudge gets to the roots of both Cherubino’s comic and virile appeal, although there is too great an urgency about her otherwise splendid performance of ‘Voi che sapete’. Amongst the more minor roles, Jonathan Best stands out as Dr Bartolo, clutching his lapels and fiddling with his cufflinks as he reveals his own sense of importance in ‘La vendetta’. In the pit, Paul Daniel concentrates on balance, tone and pace, to produce a sound full of elegance and shimmering detail.