It is with great nostalgia that I watch The Marriage of Figaro at the King’s Head pub theatre. When OperaUpClose revealed plans last week to move out of this North London pub in January, it took a while to digest the news. The fringe opera company installed itself in this creaky building on Islington’s Upper Street in 2010, with the ambition to bring high-quality opera to pub goers, and I’ve since grown increasingly attached to the notion that ‘a night at the opera’ now means piling in to the cramped theatre at the back of the bar, pint in hand, and nestling up so close to the singers that their spit occasionally hits your face.
No fewer than twenty operas have been warbled through on the venue’s tiny stage – usually pared down to include just the stories’ main characters, startlingly modernised librettos and accompanied by a small handful of instruments. The Marriage of Figaro serves as an epitomic grand finale.
Mozart’s slick farce taps into that guilty delight we find in watching disaster unfold from an advantage point of which the characters are deprived. It tells the story of a mad day in the household of Count Almaviva, where the valet Figaro and the maid Susanna are planning their wedding. But the Count fancies Susanna, page boy Cherubino fancies the Countess, and an outsider arrives determined to marry Figaro… naturally, chaos ensues.
The danger for every director lies in over-cluttering the work; the piece is at its funniest when you let the libretto and the music do the talking. By and large, director Sarah Tipple does just that, but she adds a gentle twist – the characters have off-stage as well as on-stage personas, arriving as ‘actors’ in a travelling theatre troupe, unpacking their props and costumes before beginning the opera. During scene changes we catch a glimpse of the dynamics between these ‘actors’ which cleverly mirrors the opera’s characters. I wanted to see more of this, in fact, à la Kiss Me Kate.
Baritone Nick Dwyer’s chocolatey voice makes an authoritative man of the Count. He lacks the air of concealed bewilderment, though, which tends to make the Count more amusing and less intimidating as he desperately grapples to maintain his authority. Pitch-perfect Alistair Sutherland gives Figaro a boyish innocence, finding gleeful delight in manipulating his master. Blink and you miss his brilliantly witty facial expressions.
But the women steal the show (as they usually do in Mozart’s operas, despite the composer’s endless disparaging remarks about the female sex. Many of his stories focus on women’s inability to be faithful, which is ironic given that Mozart was allegedly the philanderer in his own marriage). Soprano Rosie Bell is a mature yet sly Susanna, with a voice which swam with ease through the opera’s decorated tunes, while her accomplice Fae Evelyn brings dignity to the Countess – a graceful woman who, at the heart of all the commotion, just longs for her husband’s devotion. Her ‘Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro’ (in this case, ‘love leaves me here alone’) is the aria of the evening.
The score is rearranged for a warm combination of piano, viola and clarinet by musical director and pianist Alex Beetschen, who conducted and played with an evident love of the music. A quiet smile lands on his face when all seven voices gel in harmony. That’s the great thing about this opera: for all its bouncy tunes and slapstick, there are unannounced moments of sublime music which really knock you back.
While it’s a little rough around the edges – The Marriage of Figaro can only appear so seamless under the scrutiny of a close audience – this is Mozart’s masterpiece performed with affection by a perceptive cast. A fitting tribute to OperaUpClose’s four fruitful years at the King’s Head.
The Marriage of Figaro continues at the King’s Head, Islington, until 8 November. Tickets from £10. Click here to book.
Photos © Christopher Tribble