The Marriage of Figaro, ENO

Helen Wallace attends the opening night of Fiona Shaw's new production of Mozart's opera

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It was surely Fiona Shaw’s take on Figaro that drew an eager crowd to ENO last night, but the star of the show turned out to be a singer, and an understudy to boot. Elizabeth Llewellyn stepped in to Kate Valentine’s shoes as the Countess and won us over with her sumptuous soprano and poised, tender portrait.

ENO can be proud of the part it has played in her ascent: she was taken on by its own Opera Works programme after being out of music for a decade, and her first major role was as Mimi in La bohème earlier this year. Her burnished, powerful but contained voice has a thrilling potential which made for a heart-stopping ‘Porgi Amor’ and a moving, if not flawless, ‘Dove Sono’.

Of course, Figaro is an ensemble piece, not a vehicle for a prima donna. Llewellyn was well-matched by Roland Wood’s pugnacious and believable Count; while a somewhat downbeat Figaro (Iain Paterson) was paired with a warm but two-dimensional Susanna (Devon Guthrie). Still, they sang with such lively freshness you forgave them their lack of complex charm. Mary Bevan and Kathryn Rudge were a feisty Barbarina and Cherubino, while Timothy Robinson relished the part of Don Basilio.

Fiona Shaw could make a drama out of directing traffic, such is her sure instinct for theatre and her literary intelligence. Aided by Jeremy Sam’s witty, no-nonsense translation, the production was full of unforced comic touches, while she choreographed the relationships with great naturalness, achieving her avowed goal to make ‘those relationships recognisable’ to an audience today.

So far, so good, but overlaid onto this production is the idea that the Count is a Minatour in his own labyrinth or maze, a clever concept if not essential. So we have bull skulls scattered about and a set which is supposed to be a maze (but in fact looks like a series of giant white plastic folders from Rymans). One problem: the least interesting view of a maze is from the side. Cue the merry-go-round revolving stage (seemingly irresistible to theatre directors: it barely stopped turning in Rufus Norris’s Don Giovanni in 2010).

There’s no doubt its dizzying cycle can create the cinematic illusion of hurtling through rooms, and there were moments when it deftly served the plot. But no amount of spinning could make up for a lack of energy, crisp ensemble or tightly sprung rhythms in the pit.

Conductor: Paul Daniel
Designer: Peter McKintosh

 Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

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