Gallery and review: Figaro Gets a Divorce, Welsh National Opera, Birmingham Hippodrome

It was, of course, an ambitious idea to link the three Beaumarchais plays which had Figaro as the main character and present the operas which were based on them as a trilogy.

Gallery and review: Figaro Gets a Divorce, Welsh National Opera, Birmingham Hippodrome

DavidStout (Figaro) and Marie Arnet (Susanna). Pic: Richard Hubert Smith

The first two presented few problems. The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, by Rossini and Mozart respectively, are amongst the most popular of those composer’s works. But the third, La mere coupable, was not the greatest success in its day and had not been adapted by a musician to turn into an opera.

So Welsh National artistic director David Pountney saw that German writer Odon von Horvath had written Figaro’s Divorce in 1936 and the two sources were used by Mr Pountney and Russian-born composer Elena Langer to create this new opera, Figaro Gets a Divorce, as the final offering in its Forever Figaro season at the Hippodrome this week.

The sad fact is that West Midlands opera fans were clearly not attracted to this new work. Only a few hundred attended the performance last night and the Circle and Upper Circle was closed.  In Cardiff opera goers may have a couple of weeks to spread their opera visits, but in Birmingham the performances take place in just five days. With reasonable tickets at £50, to go to all three operas will cost £300 for a couple, along with all the attendant costs of parking, transport and refreshment. It’s a big financial commitment, especially for a work which is as yet unproven.  

Indeed, some of those who went last night were not very impressed with what was on offer and left at the interval.  “Not a single lyrical melody all night," was one comment expressed.

The drama was actually quite compelling. Gone was the humour of the previous productions—this was a gritty piece of 1930s military oppression and the Count and Countess Almaviva, their children Angelika and Serafin, as well as Figaro and Susanna, are trying to escape a revolution.

They fall into the clutches of the Major (Don Basilo in an earlier guise) who is determined to extract what wealth they have and also to humiliate them. With the Count that is no problem as he is addicted to gambling, but he and his wife also have guilty secrets which he exploits.

Susanna, meanwhile, wants a child, because her biological clock is ticking, but Figaro is not interested. As a result she has a brief fling with Cherubino and becomes pregnant—at which point Figaro asks for a divorce.

However, all the machinations of the evil Major are revealed and Figaro and Susanna decide to make the most of what they have. Considering that Figaro is the ultimate opportunist the story doesn’t end with a bang, but with a whimper, as the Count and Countess are let alone to face the music after the others escape through a secret tunnel.

The cast sing beautifully but it is sometimes a struggle as they have to compete with an orchestra playing at full blast.  Elena Langer’s music has lots of references to other composers—at one time there was a distinct affinity with Kurt Weill—but melody lines were not much in evidence.

Elizabeth Watts made a plaintive Countess and Mark Stone convincingly weak as the Count. Alan Oke oozed malevolence as the Major while Marie Arnet, as Susanna, and David Stout, as Figaro, tried to make sense of their relationship in a fast-changing and menacing world.

 Conductor Justin Brown drew a lively account of the percussive score.

The Forever Figaro season concludes with Barber of Seville on Friday and Marriage of Figaro on Saturday.

By Jerald Smith

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