They say you never forget your first time. When it does happen you want it to be perfect. You want someone who knows what they’re doing. Someone who makes you feel special. Who knows, if you choose the right person and the right place you might even enjoy it.
The Teacher and I had never done it you see. And one reason was that she had always insisted that, when she did finally do it, that she wanted Mozart to be her first. So when posters for the SNO’s latest production started to appear (at the same time as I was looking for the Teacher’s birthday present) it was finally time to introduce the two of them. I went along for the ride.
To the cynical modern mind, The Marriage Of Figaro, based on a satirical 1781 play by Beaumarchais, has all the sophistication of a Carry On film; male characters dress up as women; female characters dress up as other women; men pledge their love in the dark (to the wrong women); and a older woman, eager to marry a man young enough to be her son, discovers that he IS her son. Oooh matron! It’s a silly, randy, knockabout comedy, with bigger wigs.
What lifts it above simple farce is the underlying commentary of a ruling elite of which Beaumarchais – a self-made man who bought his way into French society – clearly disapproved. His story skewers the arrogance and entitlement of the ’noble’ classes. In particular it deals with the appalling concept of ‘le droit de seigneur’ which entitled a lord the right to claim the first night with any bride in his employ. This is a concept familiar with anyone who has watched Braveheart (it doesn’t end well). Historians now think that le droit de seigneur may never have been practiced and was a conflation of other less dramatic feudal laws. However, at the time, it was controversial enough that the play was banned and was only reinstated following the intervention of Queen Marie Antoinette herself, and then became popular enough for Mozart to have a crack at it.
The other elevating factor is, obviously, Mozart. He seems to have enjoyed the saucy fun of the original play, and firmly underlines the punch lines and shocking revelations to extract maximum humour. But he also can’t help his own talent. Potentially sentimental moments become heart breaking. Anger becomes passion. Sadness becomes profound. Like a master watchmaker, Mozart took apart the existing mechanism and remade every part in pure gold. Now, each tiny cog is beautiful and the gears interlock seamlessly. At several points four or more characters share the stage, each singing a different line but interconnecting perfectly. The loss of any one component would cause the whole to fail.
I am not (yet) qualified to judge this performance against others, but I wasn’t a complete opera virgin. Sure, yeah, I’ve experimented. At home, when no one else was around. Who hasn’t?
I think I’ve done enough fumbling to know that the SNO is bloody good in the sack: Eleanor Dennis, as the exquisite Countess Almaviva, sang about neglected love with such melancholy that it caused a piece of grit to appear in my eye for the duration of her song. Anna Devin, as Susanna, sang so high and with such purity it seemed inhuman. Hanna Hipp, playing the relentlessly horny young rake Cherubino, manages to sing and make sense of being a woman playing boy, pretending to be a woman, but unable to resist groping a chambermaid, while walking across stage on her knees in order to cop a feel off the gardener’s daughter. Donald Maxwell’s drunken gardener Antonio is just the right amount of funny without obscuring the music. The orchestra was magnificent (I wish I’d paid more to sit closer to the pit) and the Teacher and I could feel their strong thrusting power even from the back row of the Theatre Royal. The production design was somehow both minimal and opulent – when the curtain rose to reveal the opening scene of wheat sheaves being gathered at dusk, it was like looking at a Constable canvas in 3D.
These were my highlights but the entire production impressed. Perhaps it was the foreplay – the most familiar tune in the piece was the flirty overture at the start, played before the curtain even goes up. It gave me such expectation that when the scene was revealed I was really in the mood. Like a lot of peoples’ first time it was uncomfortable, too hot, and a lot of the time I had no idea what was going on but at last I’ve finally done it. I was an opera virgin, but Mozart and the SNO made a man out of me.
The Marriage Of Figaro is touring now:
- 27-29 Oct Aberdeen
- 1-5th Nov Inverness
- 9-19th Nov Edinburgh
- 5-7th Jan Newcastle