Written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Conducted by Leslie Dala. Directed by Rachel Peake. A Vancouver Opera Festival production, with costumes by Sid Neigum. At the Vancouver Playhouse on Sunday, April 30. Continues until May 18 with alternating casts
With its bubbly, lively score and sly social commentary, The Marriage of Figaro, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s masterpiece of opera buffa, has endured as a favourite for more than 230 years. No wonder, then, that Vancouver Opera chose to include the perennial audience charmer in its inaugural festival.
This is an intimate, small-scale production being staged in the 668-capacity Playhouse, with much hype being made about the costumes created by Canadian fashion designer Sid Neigum, a London Fashion Week alumnus. (The posters for the production feature an image of a sombre-faced model sporting a black macramelike garment from Neigum’s ready-to-wear collection—a piece that does not, in fact, appear in the opera.) Turns out, the fashion is the least successful part of the production.
This Figaro is supposedly set in the near future—the year 2026, according to our program notes—but the clothes are surprisingly unimaginative, apart from a highly structural A-line wedding dress in the third act, its stiff, exaggerated cowl giving the impression of the top half of an astronaut’s suit, minus the helmet. That dress was worn by the delightful soprano Caitlin Wood, in the role of the chambermaid Susannah. (Wood alternates the role with soprano Rachel Fenlon.)
Susannah’s all-white looks include a servant’s outfit with bias-cut buttoned skirt, pinafore, and long drapey sleeves that, perhaps not entirely intentionally, convey a hint of insane-asylum chic. Her wardrobe may be colour-deficient, but Wood is an absolutely vibrant Susannah, with a clear, sweet voice, just a touch of young sensuality, and enough girl-power attitude to keep her interesting. Figaro, servant to Count Almaviva and Susannah’s fiance, was performed Sunday by the charismatic baritone Alex Lawrence (alternating with baritone Iain MacNeil), whose main outfit was a slim black suit with long jacket and white contrast binding. Both Susannah and Figaro sport geometric tattoos, further setting them apart, visually, from the rest of the cast.
The rest of the costumes, pumped with colour, are incoherent—Marcellina, a housekeeper, wears emerald-green satiny cocktail dresses and pumps that look ripped from the set of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Susannah’s master, Countess Almaviva, ably performed by soprano Leslie Ann Bradley (alternating with Lara Ciekiewicz), appears in blood-red dresses and hoods that provide plenty of on-the-nose symbolism when elements of her wardrobe are carried by the chaste and virginal Susannah as she nears her wedding day. The Countess’s Act 3 Baroque-inspired outfit, with its harsh inverted-V corset and sideways bustle, is simply puzzling coming after a previous getup: a clingy, silky wraparound dress.
As for the story: Figaro weds his beloved after a convoluted series of traps, setups and Big Reveals—were he alive today, Mozart most probably could Keep Up With the Kardashians—and there are too many twists and turns to enumerate here. What cannot go unmentioned is mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel’s en travesti turn as Cherubino, the hormonally charged adolescent page. (Mezzo-soprano Pascale Spinney alternates the role.) As gifted a physical comedian as a singer, Lebel—whether in foppish suits and feathered hats, stark military garb, or flouncily cross-dressed in a girl-as-man-as-girl scene—was an utter joy to watch, stealing the show with her quirky mannerisms and clear, expressive voice.
Director Rachel Peake has coaxed some tremendously energetic and joyful performances from the cast, carried by an effervescent chamber orchestra that conductor Leslie Dala never allows to lag. When Mozart premiered The Marriage of Figaro in 1786, its biting satire and thinly veiled critique of the aristocracy were risk-taking and edgy. One only wishes that Neigum, whose designs boast some truly dazzling and unique work, had more fully embraced the boundary-pushing spirit of Mozart’s vision.