first night

The Marriage of Figaro

Francis Mullaly is is blown away by DOE's inaugural Gala Show 'The Marriage of Figaro'


The Marriage of Figaro (1786) is arguably one of Mozart's most universally acclaimed works - an opera buffa that fuses everything you want in a musical comedy: a suitable yet ridiculously conceived plot, an assortment of stereotypical characters, and a barrage of unfailing wit that will entertain the audience. I had high expectations for Durham Opera Ensemble's (DOE) inaugural production in the Gala Theatre, and was not disappointed. Undoubtedly, this was one of the strongest and most talented principal casts I have seen in student theatre.

Rather ironically, this review for First Night is actually based on the second (and concluding) night, yet this just meant that there was much less margin for error. And my incessant need to nitpick everything showed just how was few and far between any faults lay. Call me somewhat of an opera traditionalist; and whilst I appreciated the innovation that a contemporary 1960s setting instilled, I still wasn't completely convinced. Saying that, the costumes (particularly the Mondrian-inspired bridesmaid dresses) were stylish and both the costume and make-up departments should be proud of themselves. Similarly, a sparse set was effective and scene transitions were slick - to be expected for a second night. I would have preferred more props, particularly in the Wedding Scene (Act III), but I loved the large windows that formed an omnipresent backdrop to all four Acts. The subtle lighting behind them was an intelligent decision that could convey the passage of time during this 'folle journée' - a crazy day of suitably engaging drama.

Despite my initial reservations, this modern adaptation provided a wonderful juxtaposition with the traditional pit orchestra. Harry Castle, Musical Director, displayed authoritative leadership in commanding a clearly talented orchestra that played extremely consistently for three hours. Being picky, there was a tendency from the brass and large tuttis to overpower solo singers. The orchestra and the singers and were largely together but a special mention deservedly goes to the oboes for some beautiful colour in their playing, and unquestionably to Will Ford for some superb harpsichord playing during the recitatives. Whilst an English libretto was used in favour of the traditional Italian, this helped create a more accessible and less elitist interpretation.

When it came to the exposition of the principal cast, the male leads were suitably assertive. Figaro, played by Tom Rowarth, displayed a strong stage presence and delivered a consistent vibrato in managing all of Figaro's baritone range with ease - particularly in his famous Act I Cavatina. Equally strong in character was the slick yet sleazy demeanour of Count Almaviva, played by Crispin Lord. He was particularly good when exuding tension whilst interacting with the female leads - trying to seduce one and ending up grovelling to the other. Marnie Blair deserves a special mention for her effortless portrayal of Cherubino, the famous 'trouser role'. Her aria to the Countess (voi che sapete) was flawless and she captured the comedy within the Bedroom Scene (Act 2) and the flower girl scene with ease - no wonder she was an audience favourite!

However, it was the two female leads that really shone tonight. Countess Almaviva (Tara Love) produced a strong vibrato in her many arias and handled the demands of the soprano part admirably, whilst conveying her troubled relationship with the Count. Saving the best for last, it was Susanna, played by Janelle Lucyk, who stole the show for me. Her voice was stunning, her chemistry with the other principals was undeniable and her acting captured the intended theme of female empowerment the most convincingly.

With the addition of Bartolo and Marcellina, the Act III sextet was a vocal highlight of the night and a special mention also to Lewis Whyte's unquestionably humorous portrayal of Antonio - the complimentary accent and attire really emphasised how a country bumpkin easily provides comic relief from the ongoing drama. Personally, If I had a small criticism, it would be that the chorus, as large as it was, could have been utilised better: they produced a lovely, harmonious sound but rather cluttered the stage when they made their infrequent appearances. Saying that, the freestyle disco choreography, expertly devised by Rebecca Meltzer, was surprisingly good - the entire cast committed to it and despite some timing issues, I rather enjoyed it!

To conclude, whether one is a total opera enthusiast or like most students, can stigmatise opera as being elitist and bourgeois; I think DOE's biggest success tonight is not simply in just producing a near-faultless rendition of a classic opera, but in making opera truly accessible to both a specialist and generalist audience. It was a delightful three hours of high quality entertainment and it is rare for student opera to achieve that subtle balance between singing, acting and staging - congratulations to the directorial team (Rebecca Meltzer and her assistant, Ambrose Li) for clearly setting out to achieve their artistic vision.

Judging by audience reaction and turnout, this production could have easily had more than two nights in the Gala. Yes, I felt the show had minor shortcomings, and further polish could really accentuate the colour and subtleties hidden within Mozart's score further.  However, all in all, this was all about showcasing the best of Durham's opera talent and I think this production will really leave an impression on anyone new to the world of opera. I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening and DOE have really set the bar high for what will surely be a milestone in the society's history.


23 February 2015

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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