Figaro at Manchester’s RNCM

The Marriage of Figaro is such a familiar piece and so well loved that the difficulties of successfully performing Mozart’s masterpiece are often overlooked. For a start, the plot is surprisingly complicated and a clear narrative must be presented. Then, the stage business, with its slapstick content and various disguises, requires ingenuity and Feydeau-farce precision. Musically, while fine singers are required for the impressive solo arias, the inventive ensembles need to be carefully prepared. Above all, there is the question of finding the right balance between the comedy and the work’s more serious dimensions, including the tensions arising in the transition from a feudal society; and in the impact on human relationships of lust, jealousy and mistrust.

The last of these challenges is particularly pertinent to the preparation of a student production, as with the current run of Figaro at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music. In what will probably be their first experience of participating in the opera, should the students be cossetted by a traditional approach, relying on a period setting and an adherence to comic interplay likely to win the affection and approval of the audience; or should they be thrust daringly into a darker perception of the piece, perhaps by “contemporising” its milieu?

My own inclination might be for a challenging, dark staging, but director Jonathan Cocker and his designer Bob Bailey unequivocally opted for tradition and the enthusiasm which greeted the curtain calls was an indication of their success. The physical antics were adeptly managed and the emotions of the characters well communicated through the association of movement and music, even though there might have been a sharper edge to the portrayal of disillusionment.

Apart from a momentary lapse in the opening bars of the overture, Peter Whelan and his orchestra provided a satisfying underpinning to the performance, pushing it along briskly, but allowing the music to breathe when solo arias required a more introspective tempo. The chorus gamely applied themselves to their limited opportunities though could not avoid a stage demeanour which can only be described as twee.

The quality of the solo singing was of a high order, suggesting that the current generation of RNCM students will gain public notice as their careers develop. The Figaro, Liam James Karai, and Susanna, Pasquale Orchard, offered particularly impressive indications of what they will soon be giving professionally; he, with his burnished baritone, strong throughout its range, and striking stage presence; she boasting a bright lyrical soprano effortlessly soaring the heights, at the same time revealing a remarkably alert dramatic response to her quickly changing predicaments. Georgie Malcolm was the Countess, dignified in the face of adversity and displaying confident legato in her showpiece arias. As her husband, Emyr Jones was energetic but insufficiently nasty. Melissa Gregory was the pert, inventive but not clichéd Cherubino.  Lila Chrisp was a young Marcellina, making the most of her brief appearances.

A Figaro demonstrating that tradition can resoundingly succeed.