Figaro’s Divorce, Welsh National Opera, WNO, Cardiff, February 2016Posted on 22 February 2016
Beaumarchais wrote a sequel to his two plays underlying the Barber of Seville and Marriage of Figaro. In La Mère coupable a brief affair between the Countess and Cherubino results in a child, brought up as the Count’s son, and this opera, to David Pountney’s libretto based on a play by Ödön von Horváth (1901–1938), has a similar aspect.
Like Beaumarchais’s play it also features a nemesis to the Almaviva family, in this case a sinister figure called The Major. He represents the secret police in a twentieth century totalitarian regime, out to satisfy his own lusts while taking down figures such as the Count and Countess from an earlier establishment. His sympathies lie with Figaro, who like himself “clawed his way out of the mud”, but unlike the cheerful barber he “gathered secrets like poisonous flowers” and is using them against the Almavivas. Yet in the end the Countess calls on inner reserves of strength to defy him, “My power over you is that I still believe in humanity”.
A programme note quotes the author Horváth describing this as a comedy, but it is a black one indeed, with the Count disintegrating while love blossoms between his son — really his step-son — Serafin and Angelika, his love child with Barbarina. As brother and sister their relationship is doomed says the Major, lusting to marry Angelika, and the opera starts when he stymies their escape, along with Count, Countess, Figaro and Susanna, from Castle Almaviva. It concludes with their later escape from imprisonment, while the Count and Countess “stay to face the music”, and the audience is left with their final words, “We are the music”.
That music itself, by Russian expatriate Elena Langer, with its touches of Kurt Weill in the cabaret scene, beautifully recalls the angst and yearnings of the 1930s, where the story is set. Alan Oke’s singing and characterisation of the insidious Major is outstanding, and Mark Stone and Elizabeth Watts as Count and Countess provide an intriguing development of the personalities they portrayed in the Marriage of Figaro. Fine singing from the rest of the cast, with Rhian Lois and Naomi O’Connell as Angelika and Serafin, David Stout once again as Figaro, and this time with Marie Arnet as his Susanna.
As the title suggests, their marriage is falling apart, yet nothing is set in stone in this period of revolution, and with Andrew Watts as a powerful counter-tenor in the role of Cherubino, things are not always what they seem.
The atmospheric production by the same creative team (Ralph Koltai, Sue Blane, Linus Fellbom) that gave us the two Figaro operas contrasts light with darkness, well supported by Pountney’s direction and the intriguing music, sensitively conducted by Justin Brown.
After further performances in Cardiff this tours to: Birmingham Hippodrome, 3 Mar; Venue Cymru, Llandudno, 10 Mar; Bristol Hippodrome, 17 Mar; Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, 24 Mar; Milton Keynes Theatre, 31 Mar; Theatre Royal, Plymouth, 7 Apr — for details click here.