It goes without saying that Benedict Andrews’ Marriage of Figaro is not one for the Mozart purists. But I’ll say it once more as a warning – this is not for the purists. Sung in English and set in a present day gated community where the Count feels like a secret mafia boss and Susanna is far from a pure virgin, it’s bound to boil the blood of anyone who likes their opera traditional. But for the rest of us, it’s just so damn fun!
It’s hard not to be swept up in the playfulness of this production. The action is fast, and the present day setting feels like such a natural fit for Mozart’s work, everything is very comfortable, even with walkers, oxygen masks and a disturbingly realistic deer corpse. What’s really incredible is just how plausible this production actually is. Nothing feels jarring. The libretto has been gently updated in its translation, in most instances (although I’m fairly certain Susanna never yelled ‘bugger off, you old bitch!’ in the original libretto… fairly certain).
Mozart’s music shines through, with the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra in fine, lively form under the baton of Simon Hewett. Every highlight of the score is rendered beautifully, from the sparkling overture to the frantic and intricate Act II finale.
But the true strength of this production lies in the depth of understanding of character that each performer has. Michael Lewis in particular is a formidable Count Almaviva, capturing the jealousy and power of the character. Taryn Fiebig and Joshua Bloom are wonderful as Susanna and Figaro, both in fine voice. Elvira Fatykhova as the Countess impresses with stunning vocal resonance.
Jacqueline Dark as Marcellina and Conal Coad as Dr Bartolo win a lot of laughs, along with Kanen Breen as the ‘flamboyant’ Don Basilo. Dominica Matthews is particularly strong as Cherubino, playing lusty teenage boy to a tee.
The set design by Ralph Myers is effective. Every act occurs within the walls of the estate, and has a uniform clean, white modern look. Myers has a strong, unique visual aesthetic that is almost cinematic in quality. In the opening sequence, the audience is shown through several different rooms in the building in quick succession as the set rolls past. It’s sheer theatrical ingenuity. The costumes by Alice Babidge are familiar, capturing absolute realism – what these characters would wear right now.
Benedict Andrews is renowned as one of Australia’s most innovative and exciting directors, but his work is incredibly polarising. He has his devoted followers from his work at Belvoir Street and Sydney Theatre Company (Cate Blanchett, one of his biggest supporters, made an appearance at opening night, dressed down to keep a low profile). He also has his detractors. This was clear when amongst the triumphant cheers during the curtain call, one audience member loudly booed Andrews.
It’s the type of production that will divide audiences. You’ll either go along with the ride and be in opera heaven or not accept the world so far removed from what Mozart had originally envisaged. Basically – you’ll either love it or hate it. But isn’t that, after all, what great theatre makers should be aiming for?