First published in The Herald on 19 January, 2015
Opening night of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s fine new Le nozze di Figaro began with an announcement that nearly the entire cast (understudies too) had been struck down with a nasty virus just days earlier. In the event Fiona Flynn sang Barbarina’s aria from the wings, and although Heather Jamieson acted the Countess compellingly, her role was sung, valiantly and persuasively, by Charlotte Drummond — the understudy Susanna.
Which was all a tad confusing, but let’s face it, so is Figaro itself (who wrote which letter when?). For plot summary, suffice it to say that the opera was radical in 1786 as a setting of Beaumarchais’s subversive pre-revolution play, and when it’s done with the clarity of this modern-look production (slick designs by Cordelia Chisholm) it’s still a hard-hitting commentary on class and gender politics. Director Ashley Dean’s take is solid and safe: he hints at Cherubino inheriting the Count’s sexual aggression but stops there; he shows the women’s constant subjection to groping male hands but too often uses that for easy laughs. The production works and keeps its narrative clean, but it’s a shame Dean didn’t probe further. The cast could have handled it.
Musically things are pretty good. The orchestra sounds zippy and well-prepped, especially in the overture. Conductor Timothy Dean keeps tempos charging ahead, so much that on opening night he sometimes left his singers behind and steamrolled through moments that deserve more nuance. The cast is engaging and credible, especially the excellent central quartet. Arshak Kuzikyan’s Figaro is lovable and Hazel McBain makes a wonderful Susanna, spry in voice and manner. Christopher Nairne plays Count Almaviva as handsome, entitled, dim and dangerous. As an ensemble they clinch the poignant, complex relationships at the heart of Mozart’s opera — something that many professionals fail to do. The production runs until 24 January; catch it if you can.