Birmingham on a cold, early Spring Thursday night tends to offer a languid indifference to the world as it prepares for the weekend. But this Thursday offered something special. After a week in Cardiff, this was only the second auditorium ever to see the new opera, “Figaro Gets A Divorce”, which enjoyed its world premier less than a fortnight ago.
The score was written by the Russian-British composer Elena Langer to a libretto by David Pountney, and is created as a sequel to Mozart’s 1786 opera The Marriage of Figaro based on the 1778 play by Pierre Beaumarchais.
Opera fights an ongoing modern battle to win new audiences, and is at the mercy of a familiar theatrical paradox. Big audiences favour the familiar, established, successful opera, but in order to survive and appeal to new audiences, new work must be written to take the performance test that the classics first had to pass.
Pountney sets his cast in a time of forced migration, flight and revolution, a grand theme with a contemporary resonance. The plot itself is proven opera territory, star-crossed lovers turn out to be related, a woman’s child bearing desires are frustrated, lost fortunes are lamented, and an evil Major preys on the refugees with murderous results. Familiar characters from Marriage of Figaro are given new life, and new futures as they are tested by their challenging new circumstances. Pountney’s libretto is strong on narrative, with a colloquial, contemporary, feel, yet sometimes fails to match the poetic lushness of Langer’s score.
Langer’s Russian musical tutelage produces an eclectic, diverse aural montage.Although the orchestration is the same as for Mozart’s Figaro, with a few additions, the music eschews overt references to Mozart and Rossini in favour of Janacek and Weill, but is most at home in the night club scene.
Ralph Koltai’s set is a delight, with huge swivelling flats rotating, and closing in, to dramatic effect, Sue Blane’s costuming is sassy and sumptuous. Pountney also directs, the stand-out sequence being a brilliant travelogue taking them on a journey by train, car and boat, as well as across desert and snow driven wastes with inspired help from Langer’s score.
Vocally, and dramatically, the cast excel. Tenor Alan Oke as the double agent Major is the star of the show, combining psychopathic malevolence and comic elan.
Technically, soprano Marie Arnet’s brilliant Susanna sings flawlessly, has the best dress to wear, and glides effortlessly from frustrated aspiring mother to night club chanteuse. Young lovers Angelika, ( soprano Rhian Lois ) and Serafin, s (mezzo-soprano Naomi O’Connell in a travesti role) perform, and duet wonderfully, although their narrative is a shade underwritten in a show that is barely two hours long.
Operatic finale’s tend to either offer a big finish, or a poignant stripped down farewell. Pountney offers the latter, which I found somewhat perfunctory, albeit perfectly formed, as the Count and Countess await their fate.
A first viewing, and hearing, of a new opera is a demanding experience, particularly when performances are still in single figures. Yet it was a tremendously impressive and rewarding experience driven by the accomplished and enthusiastic stage cast and a disciplined and pleasing score, sensitively brought to life by conductor Justin Brown. The performance was warmly received by the adventurous operatic devotees who did attend, it is just a pity that their number was so modest, underlining the problems of bringing new work to audience.
WNO have undertaken a gigantic enterprise, and triumphed. The national tour, including Barber of Seville and Marriage of Figaro continues, dates at: https://www.wno.org.uk/whats-on
This review first appeared in Behind the Arras, abridged, where a comprehensive collection of reviews from the best of Midlands Theatre, from a range of reviewers, is available.