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.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit