Anyone familiar with Joe Hill-Gibbins’s work will brace instinctively when the curtain goes up on his new Figaro. He’s the young British director who smeared the Young Vic with jelly and custard (The Changeling) and transformed it into a giant mud pit (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), covered the Almeida in blood and more mud (The Tragedy of King Richard the Second) and bathed his cast in a stomach-turning blend of salad cream, ketchup and baked beans at the Edinburgh Festival (Greek).So when the curtain rises on a white-walled corridor whose sterile purity is broken up only by four equally white doors you do mentally reach for a mop. But Hill-Gibbins’s plans for Figaro are surprisingly clean and surprisingly, well, dry. His modern-dress production has plenty of the provocateur’s quirky ticks, but it’s efficient and eminently revivable.
If that doesn’t get your pulse racing it’s because the whole thing feels so dutiful. This is Hill-Gibbins’s third opera but only his first encounter with the canon. His productions of both Thomas Adès’s Duchess of Argyll romp Powder Her Face and Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek riffed happily off the manic, maverick, up-yours spirit of the works, but here — faced with centuries of traditions and expectations — the director plays it safe.
‘It’s particularly difficult to develop a conceptual framework for the production to inhabit,’ the director laments in a programme interview. Damn that Mozart and the pesky completeness of his opera. It’s a revealing complaint. European-style ‘director’s theatre’ has shaken up a repertoire in serious danger of calcifying, has made us think and rethink, but it is also responsible for the pretentious parlour game Pin the Concept on the Opera. That’s not quite what we get here; Hill-Gibbins is too accomplished for that. But I’m not sure that the director’s neon brights and murky grotesques make much headway into the emotional corners of Mozart’s comedy.
The overture sets the tone. Doors open and close in a meticulously choreographed sequence. Characters pose, preen, sneak out and in; they eye us speculatively, seductively. This is a French farce that has draped its silk stockings over the fourth wall and has the audience firmly in its sights. It’s self-aware but always just a little too stylised, too painted on. There’s no space for character or dramatic breath in this world of swift-moving parts. Cherubino’s ‘Voi che sapete’ becomes a dance routine for the lust-sick teenager, Susanna and the Countess — it’s slickly executed, but once it’s over we’re no closer to the characters, nothing has really been revealed.
The cast are as tight as Cherubino’s shorts. But again and again you can see the director’s brain hard at work in contriving situations that should unfold quite naturally — and would, if only he’d let his cast have their heads.
The quality of the character roles — Clive Bayley’s shambling Antonio, Susan Bickley’s keen-as-mustard Marcellina, Colin Judson’s cockney spiv of a Basilio — is exhilarating. Then you add Hanna Hipp’s Cherubino (whose instinctive comedy softens the more contrived situations), Bozidar Smiljanic’s warm, glossily sung Figaro and Louise Alder’s own radiant Susanna, whose ‘Deh vieni’ finds all the humanity we lose elsewhere, and you have a bit of a dream team. Tempos rocked and strained on opening night, however, as conductor Kevin John Edusei lost out again and again to the distractions of the stage.
It’s unfair, but any current production is faced with a new test of quality: if this were the last show before the lights go off in the West End would it be a worthy send-off? Memories of ENO’s Figaro won’t be cheering any imminent isolation, but English Touring Opera’s Cosi fan tutte is a different matter. The giddy energy coming off this show and the obvious delight the cast take in each other is irresistible.
Director Laura Attridge’s approach is less conceptual framework and more dramatic playground. She picks up Mozart’s prickliest and most ambiguous sextet of principals and places them in the sandpit of 1930s Alexandria, where they proceed to spar and frolic among the potted palms and Panama-wearing ex-pats. It’s simple, colourful and (im)properly uproarious.
Jeremy Sams’s English translation is always one step ahead, jostling with the slick physical comedy to see who can make it to the next gag first, never letting the audience lean back. Conductor Holly Mathieson and period ensemble the Old Street Band add to the pacing, a sensitive support to a shifting young cast who were about to take the show from Buxton to Exeter over the course of nearly three months of touring.
This Cosi was the musical vaccination we all needed against the bleak times ahead. It was not to be.