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.
Harry Castle, Musical Director, displayed authoritative leadership in commanding a clearly talented orchestra that played extremely consistently for three hours. 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 sap
ete) 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. The chorus, as large as it was, produced a lovely, harmonious sound but rather cluttered the stage when t
hey 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 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. 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.