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WNO Figaro Countess

Elizabeth Watts & Mark Stone (Countess & Count Almaviva) – picture by Richard Hubert Smith

The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (you should really go out and buy the paper!) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Birmingham Hippodrome on Wednesday 23 March, a sort of addendum to my Spectator review of the opening night in Cardiff a fortnight earlier. 

At the very end of The Marriage of Figaro, as the Almaviva household’s crazy day races towards its conclusion, the betrayed Countess declines her revenge and instead forgives her jealous, philandering husband. Done well, it’s one of the most poignant moments in all Mozart – in other words, in all of theatre.

In this new production from Welsh National Opera, it wasn’t just the great, compassionate glow that flooded from Lothar Koenigs’ orchestra that made the eyes well up. It wasn’t even Elizabeth Watts’s radiant singing as the Countess. It was the way Watts took the Count (Mark Stone) by the hand and for the first time in the whole evening, looked him in the eye. One little detail, a single moment of human contact – and yet one that summed up everything that made director Tobias Richter’s achievement so utterly glorious.

It fizzed. It sparkled. And with a near-ideal cast, everyone played joyously off each other. In David Stout’s witty, handsomely-sung Figaro and Anna Devin’s sunny, spirited Susanna, Richter had a central couple who were both entirely believable and enormous fun to be around. With her gawky movements and sweet but plangent tone, Naomi O’Connell’s Cherubino was the girl-crazy teenage boy to perfection.

As Basilio, Alan Oke rolled his r’s with deliciously pedantic relish, while Richard Wiegold’s Bartolo and Susan Bickley’s Marcellina managed the transition from pantomime baddies to doting parents with genuine charm. And under Richter’s direction, even the Count evoked sympathy, Stone’s features crumpling with the frustration and puzzlement of a man who’s essentially weak rather than bad.

Sue Blane’s colourful mock-Georgian costumes gave the whole thing the tiniest spice of artificiality – just enough to make it ping off the stage. And to hear the clarity and comic timing these singers brought to their lines (in Jeremy Sams’ translation), with an audience laughing in real time, was a vindication of WNO artistic director David Pountney’s decision to have it sung in English. Ralph Koltai’s semi-abstract sets won’t have been to all tastes, but they focused attention on what really mattered: the warmth of the human comedy unfolding beneath them, and some of the freshest singing and acting you could possibly hope for. In short, if you get a chance to see this production, take it. It’s basically perfect.