Ok, before I start this, allow me to make a few disclaimers.
1) This was a free ticket. I won mine, and my companions also won tickets, so we were very happy to be seeing something for free.
2) I admit to being somewhat biased about Opera Australia. When they get it right, they are up the with the best. Not that they always do of course, but they CAN do...
3) I love funny Mozart productions, and this was very funny.
4) I have competed in an eisteddfod against at least one, and I suspect 2 of the leads in this show many years ago, and am always really pleased to see them doing well.
5) There was a problem with the sound not being totally in sync with the visuals. At times this was annoying, other times you barely noticed it, but it was there. Why? I have no idea, but it needs to be fixed for future productions.
Okay, now to the meat and potatoes, as it were.
First, let me say that I was not entirely convinced by the production design of this show. It did not really strike me as a convincing country residence of a wealthy aristocracy member. The first act set was a nondescript brownish fabric backdrop, which was draped rather than hung. There was an opening in it for the door, and doors on either side of the stage which were fixed in place for all acts of the opera, and looked the worse for wear, being plain wood, not the sort of thing you would expect to see in a count's bedroom, for example, or in his 2 highly placed and respected servants, whose marriage the opera revolves around. The following acts also featured scenery that did not entirely match what was required, or what was referred to, which is annoying.
The set also frequently featured things that were totally out of place, deliberately so. In Figaro and Susanna's bedroom, there was a red vinyl reclining rocker chair, and a steam iron that Susanna is using at the start, on a wooden folding ironing board, that, if it had a metal frame would look at home in a modern home. The ironing board was the subject of much amusing business, with people getting bent over on it, or in one case, having it wind him rather painfully. There was also a hairdryer on a stand in the Countess's bedroom, the sort you see in hairdressers that cover your whole head (?) These incongruities were both amusing and confusing, leading to “why were they there” thoughts.
The business in the first act, with first Cherubino hiding, then the Count hiding, with the chair was handled very well, if a touch unbelievably. It was also hilarious, because you could see what was coming, yet the reveal of the hidden characters was farcical in the true sense of the word, not corny or hackneyed. This was also one of those moments where a more true to life setting would have worked better, with more places to hide as the characters moved around the room. On the other hand, the final aria of the first act, where Figaro sings about Cherubino joining the army was probably over played. It was funny, but you would have expected Figaro to show a bit more sympathy to Cherubino, rather than making him suffer quite so much. It was funny, but it felt a bit forced as it got more over the top. On the other hand, the interplay between Marcelina and Susanna was priceless. The frostiness between them as they tried to get the other to leave first was both real AND funny, just like most of this production.
The Countess's bedroom scene also was played for laughs. Apart from the very affecting opening aria Porgi amor, the comedy came fast and furious. Rachelle Durkin sang a very beautiful Countess, all too real, and both driven to distraction by her husband's behaviour, and longing to get him back, to return to the days when he was affectionate and loving. Her's is a high sounding soprano with a faster vibrato than is common these days, but with a strong powerful sound, which made a clear distinction to Taryn Fiebig's more darker sound. The interplay between them worked very well both musically, as well as their acting, the years of having sung together showed. They were totally believable as the lady and her maid, who knew all her secrets. Both sang beautifully throughout, and shon in the glorious solo music they both get.
Sian Pendry as Cherubino is one of those cases of great casting. She is believable as a boy. She plays the boy in the control of his hormones very well, and totally looks the part. Indeed, if it was not for the voice, you would think she WAS a boy. But, no, this mezzo sings with a clarity, putting all the enthusiasm required for this gift of a role to it's service.
As Marcelina, Jacquie Dark is surprisingly sexy. Yes, she is old enough to have been around and seen and done most of it. Yes, she is that stereotyped bitch that her character is meant to be. But she was more. From the start, there was the human warmth behind her, so that the Act 3 sudden change was not so much "Oh my God!" but a natural and logical reaction for someone who has previously been crushed by her life, but saw a chance to redefine herself. In short, she was a real person, and a walking, singing demonstration of the adage, there are no small roles, only small performers.
Kaneen Breen also was very strong as the music master. He was every bit the fussy prissy nasty gossip the story makes him out, the butt of many jokes. He also grabbed the role with both hands and made it his own, with lots of minor scene stealing moments that made his character more than just a figure of fun. In fact, he was clearly having enormous fun being the figure of fun..
I have not really said much about Figaro and the Count yet. Having Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Peter Coleman Wright in the same show really is a gift to any audience. Teddy with his undeniable physical charms, as well as a virile baritonal sound really makes the former barber turned manservant role his own. He is convincing as well as funny, and from the opening duet, you know he is well cast in this role.
Likewise Peter Coleman Wright as the Count is everything you would expect from this experienced performer. He plays him for his faults, and works to bring the humour out. If he is not the natural comic that TTR appears, that also works, because the Count is supposed to be a serious figure, with very obvious flaws. That he manages to humanise him says much about his skill as a performer.
And yet, for all the obvious strengths of the male cast members, the things that remain for me as I write this, is just how amazing the women were in this. They really were the heart of this performance. Taryn and Rachelle were the glue that made everything stick. Their Sull' aria duet was the music that stuck in your head afterwards (and this is an opera full of great tunes). Not because it was staged funny or something unexpected happened, but rather because they allowed the beauty of the music to express the emotions of the characters, and the closeness between them. Not to mention, they sang it beautifully. I went with 2 others who also have sung in opera, and knew this opera quite well. Each of us, after leaving the cinema sang snatches of sull' aria as we headed off. Somehow, it seemed to sum up the production. And, I guess in an opera about relationships and their difficulties, that is probably a good thing.