Music Review: The Marriage of Figaro, English National Opera

Fiona Shaw's delightful direction of Mozart's great opera.

There are of course genuine problem operas - Parsifal, La Forza del Destino, Ariadne auf Naxos, La Rondine - works whose structure or subject matter is so unwieldy as to tax the most inventive of directors. But then there's a work like The Marriage of Figaro, problematic in an entirely different way. As director Fiona Shaw herself acknowledges, Mozart's storytelling and musical drama are so tightly, so minutely synchronised as to leave a director little to do, and almost no room to manoeuvre. Yet by inhabiting the silences and gaps, those inevitable operatic offcuts, Shaw finds her solution, successfully claiming her own space within this greatest of operas.

We open with a witty little trick, a piece of playful artifice that sets the tone for proceedings. A lone harpsichord stands to the fore of the stage. As the orchestra fussily and self-consciously tune we, along with Don Basilio become aware that a bee is buzzing about. He traps the offending creature within the harpsichord and its muted and angry frettings become the string scales of the overture. Smug, perhaps, but it's the kind of joke that can only emerge from loving familiarity with the score, and if in this production Shaw allows the textural minutiae to overbalance the broader arc of the opera, it's an issue well worth risking.

Baumarchais's dichotomies of upstairs and below-stairs, of master and servant, become part of a single fluid continuum in Shaw's vision of Almaviva's kingdom. Her set - a white maze of walls and staircases - sits on a revolve, and as the plot entangles its characters so the rotations of the set embrace them into an ever-shifting Escher-designed domain of false exits and hidden staircases. And the minotaur within the maze? The Count himself (a vocally slightly unfocused Roland Wood) of course, a blood-and-flesh sort of man, whose lackeys invade the Countess's dressing room complete with the trussed spoils of the hunt.

There are some practical issues to Shaw's setup however; ensemble suffers from the breathless intricacy of the movement, and both the Act I finale and the garden denouement which were still shuddering a week into the run.

Balancing the stylised set and the deliberate anachronisms so beloved of ENO productions, are details of characterisation that give the work the specificity it needs. A crafty Figaro, whose pen is truly mightier than his master's sword, Iain Paterson gives us wry comedy with just enough violence suppressed within it. While his Don Giovanni last season never quite settled, here among the heavy symbolism of the endless ram's skulls (one of which he shaves in an inspired Sweeney Todd-esque rendition of "Se vuol ballare") his masculinity in beyond question, bringing the best from Jeremy Sams' translation - truly a thing of beauty and a timely justification for ENO's opera-in-English policy.

While the press night audience saw Elizabeth Llewellyn stepping in at short notice (by all accounts superbly) for an indisposed Kate Valentine, her success should not obscure the tender and immensely moving reading Valentine herself gives. By turns imperious mistress and victim, her "Dove sono", though hustled by conductor Paul Daniel's swift speeds along with "Che soave zeffiretto", ran a velvet-gloved finger through an open wound - its masochistic beauty unmatched for thrills during the evening.

Devon Guthrie's Susanna is also a delight, full of character and with an unobtrusive power behind the lyric prettiness of her voice. Kathryn Rudge's Cherubino by contrast was all rough edges and lack of loveliness - a claret drunk too young - but came off best when sparring with Mary Bevan's deliciously feckless Barbarina.

There is so much that is good here: Daniel's recitative accompaniments are as rich in harmonic inference and they are spare in texture; foreground characters emerge with clarity, set in relief against the monochrome bustle of Shaw's faceless domestics. The whole achieves a quiet menace that keeps a contrary current running through even the smoothest moments of Mozart's opera. Shaw's opera and Mozart's do occasionally find themselves jostling for supremacy among the bustle of detail and action, but these small skirmishes may yet find themselves satisfactorily resolved in revival.

Photo: Getty
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Stanley Johnson's Diary

The author on iguana burgers, cricket with Boris – and what Russia really knew about Brexit.

My week began with the annual Earl Spencer v Boris Johnson cricket match, held at Charles Spencer’s Althorp House in Northamptonshire. This is a truly wonderful event in a wonderful setting. Boris’s team has not yet notched up a victory, even though we once fielded Kevin Pietersen. This year, we actually came close to winning. The Johnson team made 127. Charles Spencer’s, with one over left, was on 123. It was a nail-biting finish, and they finally beat us with only two balls left to bowl.

Clapping for Britain

The day after the match, I was invited to lunch at the Travellers Club to meet Alden McLaughlin, the premier of the Cayman Islands, and other members of his government who were travelling with him in London. I discovered that his vision for the islands’ future extended far beyond the financial sector, central though that is. He was, for example, proud that the Cayman Islands – like other UK overseas territories – contribute enormously to the UK’s biological diversity.

“The blue iguana is endemic to the Cayman Islands,” McLaughlin explained, “and it is one of the great environmental success stories of our time. It has been brought back from the brink of extinction.” If the blue iguana is on the way to recovery, it seems that the green iguana is superabundant. “We must have a million of them,” he said. “They are getting everywhere. We are working on a strategy to deal with them.” I told him that I once had an iguana burger in Honduras. He shook his head. “We don’t eat iguanas in the Caymans.”

Premier McLaughlin was also able to offer a useful insight into Britain’s current Brexit-related tensions. In 1962, the Cayman Islands were forced to decide whether to stay with Jamaica, as Jamaica became independent, or to stick with Britain as a separate crown colony. “We decided by acclamation,” McLaughlin told me. “One side clapped loudest; the other side clapped longest. The loudest side won. We stayed with Britain.” Like the latest Johnson-Spencer cricket match, it was a close-run thing.

Light touch

Last week, we went to the first night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall and, in the course of an inspiring evening, heard Igor Levit, born in Nizhny Novgorod, give us a haunting version of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. There were mutterings afterwards that he shouldn’t have chosen Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as his encore, but if Levit meant this as a political statement – and he probably did – it was done with the lightest of touches. He doesn’t paint his message in huge capital letters on the side of a bus.

An open goal

My sister, Hilary, who emigrated to Australia in 1969, has been visiting. We spent two days on Exmoor in the middle of the week, on the family farm where we grew up, before coming back to London for the launch of my 25th book and tenth novel. Kompromat is a satirical political thriller that aims to recount the real story behind both the election of Donald Trump as US president and the pro-Brexit vote in last year’s referendum. There is a quotation from the former London mayor Ken Livingstone on the front cover: “It’s brilliant and, who knows, maybe it’s true.”

In interviews, I have been asked whether I really believe that the Russians might have been behind both Trump’s victory and Brexit. My response is simple. In the US, the idea of Russian interference in the election is being taken very seriously. Over here, we don’t seem to be bothered. I asked myself, when I started writing Kompromat in February, why wouldn’t the Russians have taken a shot at an open goal?

My fictional British prime minister, Jeremy Hartley, is a deeply patriotic man, convinced that the only way to take Britain out of the EU is to call a referendum – with a little help from his “friends”. But I don’t want to give too much away. Channel 4 has bought the rights and will be programming six half-hour episodes.

All in the family

Hilary and I went to Wimbledon for the ladies’ final as the guests of her old friend David Spearing. Usually referred to by tennis addicts as “the man in the black hat”, he first became a Wimbledon steward in 1974 and, even though he has lived in Abu Dhabi for the past 50 years, he never misses a season. As the longest-serving steward, he gets to sit (wearing his famous hat) in the “family box” at Wimbledon, the one where close relatives of the players are invariably placed.

We met Spearing in the officials’ buttery during one of the intervals (Venus Williams had just been walloped by Garbiñe Muguruza). Later, as he walked us back to our seats, people kept stopping to ask him for a selfie. “I’ve been on duty in the ‘family box’ for 20 years,” he explained. “They all know me, from the TV or in person, seeing me sitting there hour after hour. The first time Andy Murray won the championship, he climbed up into the box to hug his girlfriend. I noticed he had missed his mother, who was sitting over to the side. ‘Don’t forget about Mum, Andy,’ I told him!” 

Stanley Johnson’s novel “Kompromat” is published  by Oneworld

Stanley Johnson is an author, journalist and former Conservative member of the European Parliament. He has also worked in the European Commission. In 1984 Stanley was awarded the Greenpeace Prize for Outstanding Services to the Environment and in the same year the RSPCA Richard Martin award for services to animal welfare. In 1962 he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry. He also happens to be the father of Boris Johnson.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder