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.

NANCY JO IACOI/GALLERY STOCK
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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times