The Marriage of Figaro

ARTS, Music,

NBR New Zealand Opera
St James Theatre, Wellington | May 15-22
Aotea Centre, Auckland | June 3-13

When you’re programming more than 20 operas in a season, like at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, you can afford to both take risks and play favourites. But when two works constitute your season, it’s arguably a much harder task. Such is the lot of New Zealand Opera, who this year are performing an opera apiece from Mozart and Verdi. The two works are brilliant, important examples of the art form, but it’s programming that again leaves audiences without the chance to experience the new, or even the Twentieth Century. When will we see Thomas Adès’s The Tempest, Berg’s Wozzeck, or even Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna?

Still, there’s satisfying amount of cross-dressing in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (1786), New Zealand Opera’s first production of the year. Based on a Beaumarchais play, the opera recounts the comic entanglements of Figaro, his wife-to-be Susanna and a motley range of characters during a day in the palace of Count Almaviva. There are all manner of twistings and turnings in the plot—at one point Figaro is almost forced to wed his mother—but at the opera’s heart is Susanna’s thwarting of the chauvinistic Count.

This engrossing production was marked by strong performances from the female leads, in particular the young Australian Emma Pearson as Susanna, and the graceful Nuccia Focile as Countess Almaviva. Both singers gave near flawless vocal performances, and created utterly convincing characters. Newcomer Alexandra Ioan was a sweetly pregnant Barbarina, while veteran Helen Medlyn played the perfect Marcellina with superb comic timing. New Zealander Wendy Dawn Thompson just about stole the show however, with a terrifically realised performance as the gender-bending love-struck pageboy Cherubino, especially in her aria Non so più.

The uniformly fine vocal performances were well supported by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, under the experienced watch of Lionel Friend, who played assuredly and incisively from the overture, with particularly enjoyable contributions from the woodwind.

The spare sets of designer Robin Rawstorne were a striking feature of this production. In Act 1, moveable high walls creating shifting rooms that allowed impressively seamless transitions between scenes. It was a little hard to know what to make of the large oval (vaginal?) window that dominated the second act (and through which Cherubino leaps), while the curvaceous terraces of Act 4 were out of place and with particularly dim lighting seemed far more expressionist than the close of this work would seem to demand. But, like last year’s Eugene Onegin, this is a visually striking work and Rawstorne deserves credit for his innovation and aesthetic risk-taking.

This is a superlative first production for New Zealand Opera by their director Aidan Lang. It may be a work that sits at the centre of the traditional operatic repertoire, but this is a fresh new production: genuinely funny, originally staged, and brilliantly acted.