One of the challenges in in mounting a production of any of the three great masterpieces that Mozart composed with libretti by the great Lorenzo da Ponte (Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan Tutte) is to show how deftly the two masters responded to each other's talent in the composition process. Wit abounds, and you don't have to have an 18th century mind to appreciate it. You just have to have good musicians who understand what they're singing, and a production that, at least, doesn't get in the way of that. Opera Australia has released a Marriage of Figaro that does justice to most, if not all, of the major challenges this great opera.
First the plusses: All the principles sing well, and a couple, brilliantly. Teddy Tahu Rhodes, in the title role, has a velvety and powerful bass and is mostly very good with the action. He's young and good looking, and the only thing I would ask him to do, were I his coach, is to become more fluent with the Italian. Sometimes, especially in the beginning, it seems as though he is just singing the syllables. His body language is excellent, and really makes me want to believe he understands what he's singing, and he probably does. It's just that his comfort level with the language in the first act seems more strained than it should be. As Susanna, Taryn Fiebig is the most gratifying member of the cast. She looks just exactly like what, in my imagination, Susanna should look like, and she has a full, accurate and agile voice that is unsurpassed in my experience of performed versions this opera. As the Count and Countess Almaviva, Peter Coleman-Wright and Rachelle Durkin sing and act with a deceptive ease and, at times, acidic wit. These young singers, along with almost everyone else here, accept the particular challenge of Mozart and da Ponte's opera as more than just becoming able to sing the notes on pitch. The principle difficulty in performing Mozart's music is to make it sound easy, when it most assuredly is not. This is true for singers, pianists, or just about anybody for whom Mozart composed music to perform. It's especially difficult to pull this off in comedy because the conventions of comedy call for a quick pace in musical as well as theatrical timing. All of the principles were above average as singing actors, and it was gratifying to see singing actors whose age is appropriate to the roles they are singing. In fact, if there is one word that I would use to sum up all the reasons I am glad to own this DVD, it is "youth." Finally, the musical direction, led by an inspired reading by conductor Patrick Summers, puts the seal on the 4th star atop the present review. Now, everything that follows can be considered as under the category of why there isn't a fifth.
My principle objection is that the production, and specifically, the sets and scenery, is practically meaningless. There is nothing, other than the singers, that's interesting to look at, and this opera, at just over 3 hours on this DVD, really needs to provide a visual statement. Instead, it seems that the producers were completely void of ideas. The costumes are identifiable as late 18th century, probably the same ones they used in the last 3 productions; the scenery is often little more than a chair in front of an onstage leather (?) curtain; and the lackluster props and hairstyles border on distracting. The makeup and hair stylings particularly is, in some cases (such as the Countess's terrifying zombie-Bride of Frankenstein coif) so off-putting it gets in the way the formidable music-making going on. These strange a-historical conceits (I get it that people, even rich people, didn't wear their powdered wigs at home, in front of the help, but surely they didn't have hair styles that made them look like they got struck by lightning) combined with some of the barely adequate singing in some of the lesser roles, makes the supporting cast of this opera just feel like little more than baggage (excepting tenor Kanen Breen's Don Basilio, who is satisfactorily amusing in a gay-cliche kind of way). This is especially true of Sian Pendry, who gives us a Cherubino that is barely distinguishable, either theatrically or musically, from just about any other Cherubino I've ever seen. It's the most bawdy performance in the production, which should have given it a little charm, but the problem is, Sian Pendry doesn't justify herself out of an episode of I Love Lucy, and her tiresome sit-com skills are not elevated by distinguished singing. Ms. Pendry is adequate, but Cherubino is supposed to be a distraction. We are supposed to like him, not just put up with him.
To allay the danger of ending on a sour note, I will say that the virtues of this production far outweigh its flaws. In fact, the flaws stand out more because of, not in spite of, the inspired musicianship and mostly good theatrical instincts of the principle cast and crew.