The maze, the Minotaur, the multiple perspectives of past and future, interior and exterior: actor-director Fiona Shaw has found some diverting motifs for her third opera production (after Vaughan Williams’ Riders to the Sea and Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers, also for English National Opera), but ultimately Mozart proves too big for her. Her Figaro is a strangely vacuous show. There is no lack of humour or peripheral detail, but Shaw has nothing to say about the four central characters, their sexual tensions and social environment.
It is a pity, because the maze and Minotaur motifs – the former a collection of cutaway prefab units, the latter a symbol of sexual power and predatory appetite – make for an engaging first half. With no pauses for scene changes, Peter McKintosh’s turntable set, more Homebase than ancien régime, generates a wonderfully fluid atmosphere, creating a sense of life around and behind the main action, none of it distracting or unmusical. The Almaviva household, in period dress but with an odd scattering of modern accoutrements, is a hive of eavesdropping, where anything is possible and nothing is secret.
By the third act, however, the show has begun to look quite ordinary, and the fourth – where the maze motif should have achieved maximum purchase – is a mess, with everyone clambering over a clutter of low-profile stage-furniture. Shaw’s biggest error is to ignore the sexual jealousies that turn the opera’s dramatic screw. Figaro and Susanna behave like a settled couple, barely younger than Bartolo and Marcellina. The Count and Countess exchange romantic intimacies at the very moment when they are supposed to be estranged.
The star performance comes from Kathryn Rudge’s Cherubino – chaotically sexy, charismatic, totally compelling. Elizabeth Llewellyn’s smoky-toned Countess sings with
a touch of class, Iain Paterson’s clear-cut Figaro with a sense of style. Devon Guthrie’s matronly Susanna and Roland Wood’s blokeish Count never quite establish themselves, in a way that Mary Bevan’s boozy Barbarina undoubtedly does. Paul Daniel provides welcome Mozartian experience in the pit, but not enough to compensate for Shaw’s lack of it on stage.