Musical values are to the fore in this second revival of Fiona Shaw’s 2011 production of The Marriage of Figaro. Martyn Brabbins leads a fleet account of the score with a strong sense of immediacy and response between pit and stage, and with some great playing from the ENO Orchestra. Particular mention should be made of the dazzling contribution of the continuo player, full of lovely embellishment and detail. The Overture has real verve and the wedding dances are sprightly. Brabbins is also very considerate to his singers who are given full rein to show off their best.
At the heart of this revival are two very strong performances, by Lucy Crowe and Ashley Riches as Countess and Count Almaviva. Crowe’s voice is developing remarkably – it has more power nowadays and the tone remains as warm and creamy as ever. She sings her arias with an artlessness that is both affecting and convincing. Dramatically her Countess is a stronger personality that is sometimes the case, and Crowe enters into the spirit of Shaw’s conception well. Opposite her Ashley Riches gives a remarkably assured account. He takes advantage of his height to dominate proceedings; his character’s actions within, and reactions to, the intrigue are to the fore. You get a real sense of what drives this aristocrat and what frustrates him. Riches’s singing is also first rate – his warm coppery tone sounds very well in the large theatre.
Indeed, with two such dominant appearances, Susanna and Figaro have their work cut out to register quite as firmly. Rhian Lois gives a winningly vivacious, tireless and occasionally feisty Susanna, although the lightness and brightness of her voice affects her projection at times, and there is more contrast than blend with Crowe’s Countess in duet. Thomas Oliemans makes an auspicious debut with ENO. The voice is ample and firm and he sings with presence and flair. Dramatically though this Figaro is more reactive to events rather than fierily pro-active. Katie Coventry is a restrained Cherubino from a vocal perspective and dramatically full of youthful contradiction, and there were some vintage performances: Janis Kelly’s mettlesome Marcellina lit up the stage every time she was on it (she has amazingly expressive eyes!) and Keel Watson is a wry and engaging Dr Bartolo; Colin Judson sings an admirable Don Basilio (though the directorial decision to have him as partially sighted limits his dramatic involvement), Alasdair Elliott delivers a Don Curzio whose sprightly contribution to the Act Three sextet is notable, and Paul Sheehan makes Antonio’s every word tell. This is a cast that really knows how to sing in English and deliver the text of Jeremy Sams’s witty translation to the full.
Fiona Shaw’s production, revived by Peter Relton, has its tics and definite stance on characterisations that doesn’t always convince. The relentless motion and business of the first two Acts, and even during the Overture, with extras popping up all over the revolving and complex maze-inspired settings becomes wearisome. The sparer designs of Act Three stand out in some relief, allowing the artists more chance for stillness and to impose some personality and subtlety. Nonetheless this Figaro stands well and there is much to relish and enjoy, certainly from the musical and vocal perspective.