Figaro gets an update and twist at Waterperry Festival Opera

I am late to the party in only discovering what a wonderful experience opera (and dance) is at Waterperry Opera Festival, now enjoying its fifth season at the gorgeous Oxfordshire gardens that gives it its name.

All the summer opera festivals have their own feel and what made Waterperry distinctive on this first visit was, of course, the splendid setting of the gardens and the bijou country house backdrop. But just as enjoyable was the enthusiasm of the team, yes, the youthful delight of the singers, musicians and behind the scenes creatives, but also the volunteers who display genuine enjoyment of the festival.

However, without a strong standard of work none of this would matter a jot. Fortunately, this is not the case as the production and musicianship of the opening new work of the season, a new Marriage of Figaro, is both highly impressive and accomplished. Admittedly the updating to contemporary times by director Isabelle Kettle and her designer Charlotte Henery will not be everyone’s cup of tea. It joins the productions doing the rounds where people zoom around on bicycles, take selfies, etc etc. The representation of the countess as a struggling nursing mum is probably different.

Having Cherubino changed from he to a she (unless I am mistaken Cherubina as the sung libretto is quite adamant she is indeed a she), is not new in these days of directors experimenting with gender role reversal/ gender fluidity. It adds a question about the other women’s relationship with her, so we have sexual orientation fluidity as well I suppose. But enough of that. We had been told (warned) that it would be a bold new production and added to that should have been a fun and lively evening from an effervescent cast.

Jessica Cale and Adam Maxey

Dramatically, the modernisation (including costumes) while intended no doubt to talk to today’s audiences, does takes away from the social context of the work as there is not much of a difference between servants and their master and mistress, making their protestations of the shame of relying on the lower orders to help sort out their problems, for example, less convincing.

Good use is made of the venue. There are several examples of the windows, balconies and rooftop of the house being used for theatrical effects which to give details would spoil the enjoyment for future audiences, so suffice to say it was all inventive and effective and, at times, very witty.

Ashley Mercer and Jerome Knox

One negative was that as the seating is one level the stage would benefit from being a little higher if possible and when the direction takes the players off the stage they at times disappear from view.

But the joy of the opera and any production is the singing and music-making and here the young cast and band of musicians under Waterperry Opera Festival’s music director Bertie Baigent gave the audience a first-night performance that matched the elegance of the surroundings.

As Figaro, Adam Maxey pronounces in Act One he will make the Count dance to his tune but it is he who bops around the stage in a garish suit and, as directed, lacks dramatic weight, particularly compared with the even more pivotal than usual characterisation of Susanna sung by a Jessica Cale. However, vocally the pair are a delight and when needed the chemistry is there.

The Countess, played by Alison Langer, also suffers from the conceptual clutter in Act One and her ‘Porgi Amor’ was deprived of its usual impact. However, by Act Three she sang a beautiful and moving ‘Dove Sono i Bei Momenti’. It would have been even better had the director not felt the need to clutter the scene with servants laying tables. The duet between the Countess and Susanna ‘Sull’Aria’ allowed the two sopranos’ voices to work together exquisitely.

Annie Reilly and Eleanor Sanderson-Nash

The Count, played by Jerome Knox, also had strong stage presence and a disarming baritone that made him rather a likeable philanderer which I am certain was not the intention. Mezzo-soprano Annie Reilly sang Cherubino with great flair but the modern characterisation reduced the charm of the role and the rock dude characterisation of Basilio, played by Lawrence Thackeray was overdone. Ashley Mercer played Antonio to full comic effect, and, like Thackeray’s Basilio, acted almost like a warm-up act before the opera itself got underway. The former worked well as Waterperry has stunning gardens, so a gardener pottering around is perfectly logical. The down-with-the-kids electric guitarist of Basilio, perhaps not quite so. Eleanor Sanderson-Nash was a sprightly Barbarina.

The roles of Figaro’s enemies who turn out to be his parents, Bartolo and Marcellina, are nicely taken by Edmund Danon and Katherine Crompton, although again the characterisation of the latter as a rather glamorous and funky woman, rather than desperate spinster, was interesting.

The performance was proceeded by a performance of Jonathan Dove’s 1991 composition Figures in the Garden, performed by musicians from Oxford County Youth Orchestra and dancers from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance(above). This extra treat, performed in the gardens, is a mellow prequel to the performance, with Dove’s meshing of music from the opera with his own composition into a wind ensemble serenade, wind instruments so important to Mozart’s Figaro opera score, cleanly interpreted and executed in dance by the young students.

Until August 20.

The Marriage of Figaro was the opening night performance of this year’s Waterperry Opera Festival which is led by artistic director Guy Withers and music director Bertie Baigent.

Running until 20 August 2022 at Waterperry House and Gardens, Oxfordshire, the festival includes Ana Sokolović’s opera Svabada (A Wedding), directed by Rebecca Meltzer, staged performances of Janáček’s The Diary Of One Who Disappeared and a scenic Wagnerian double bill concert of Siegfried Idyll and Wesendonck Lieder and Flora, created by violist Anna Semple and dancer Emily Pahlawan Collinson, fuses music and dance in a creative response to the physical forms within Waterperry Gardens.

Other temptations include the return of the 2021 staging of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Jonathan Dove’s Figures in the Garden with Trinity Laban dance students and Oxfordshire County Youth Orchestra and Dove’s Mansfield Park.

For full details:

Waterperry Opera Festival 2022 season

Main image: Alison Langer, Jessica Cale and Adam Maxey

Image by Marc Brenner

Mansfield Park review:

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