Sir Thomas Allen directs Figaro at the Royal College of Music

This autumn, though, ‘canonic’ composers have dominated the programming.
The Royal Academy offered us Olivia Fuchs’ sharply observed


for the smart-phone age. And, now, following the Guildhall School of Music
and Drama’s presentation of CosÏ fan tutte, the Royal
College of Music have similarly elected to test themselves in Mozartian
waters with this charming production of The Marriage of Figaro.

In the GSMD’s CosÏ, director Oliver Platt eschewed rococo elegance
for rowdier revelry, taking us to a 1950’s hot-spot, Alfonso’s Bar
, located near a US naval base in the South Pacific. Sir Thomas Allen
plumps for tradition and his designer, Lottie Higlett, transforms the RCM’s
Britten Theatre into Count Almaviva’s eighteenth-century chateau, taking us
on a tour which starts in the tiny, dilapidated garret where Figaro and
Susanna will begin married life, continues in the spacious elegance of the
Countess’s boudoir, and finishes amid the graceful trellises of the garden
– skilfully arranged to allow for sleight of hand and eye, as the nocturnal
intriguers carry out their machinations and reconciliations bathed in
designer Rory Beaton’s beautiful moonlight glow.

Both sets and costumes are superb. And, by cleverly opening up the depth of
the stage when we leave the shabby attic – with its single bed (will there
be room for a double, Figaro ponders?), thread-bare chair and rather
forlorn mannequin upon which Susanna’s wedding veil perches expectantly –
and enter the stately sumptuousness of the Countess’s bedroom, Higlett
emphasises the class tensions and injustices which propel the drama. The
colour schemes are beguiling, with Susanna’s simple sky-blue dress set
against the rose-gold luxuries of the aristocracy. And, the cast wear their
frock-coats and fineries with confidence and style; they’ve clearly worked
very hard at the particulars of characterisation and the production has
been meticulously rehearsed.

I struggle, however, to say anything of import or interest about Sir Thomas
Allen’s direction – other than that he has evidently exercised what must be
described as a ‘light touch’. Nothing wrong with that, of course – indeed,
we often have cause to lament directorial dabbling and conceptual muddling.
But, it’s a credit to the singers’ alertness and rapport that, especially
in Acts 3 and 4, the drama was so engaging, for they seemed to have been
largely left to their own devices. Allen’s only ‘intervention’, as far as I
could see, is the introduction of several ‘babes-in-arms’ – or, in the case
of the Countess, a babe-in-a-crib which is whipped away by a nursemaid (is
that why she’s ‘off-limits’ for the Count at this time, leading to his
extra-marital forays?). Among the chorus who serenade the Countess and
celebrate the weddings, there are several young girls whose arms are
encumbered by a swaddled child: a reminder of the welcome responsibilities
of married life, or a warning perhaps that romance ends with wedlock?
Certainly, the risks of indulging one’s passions are evident, as Marcellina
palpitates on the bed during ‘La vendetta’ – Bartolo’s wish for revenge
firing her own desire for Figaro – and the Countess almost expires from an
overdose of sensual craving aroused by Cherubino’s serenading.

During the performance there was much excellent singing to admire, but I
had misgivings as proceedings got underway as conductor Michael Rosewell
(Director of Opera at the RCM Opera Studio) seemed determined to make a
dramatic impact at the expense of idiomatic style. The overture was fast
and unremittingly loud, but where was the elegance and wit of phrasing, the
grace of line, the carefully delineated contrasts of colour and timbre?
Accents were hammered home and the relentless tempo and temperature
adversely affected the ensemble and intonation. There was little sense that
the structure of the overture might articulate its own, and the opera’s,
drama; impact was favoured over inference. Fortunately, though the pit was
very ‘present’ throughout the performance, things settled down, the
woodwind and horn tuning improved, and there was some pleasing playing as
the evening progressed.

Adam Maxey has a handsome baritone, a relaxed manner, and – being of
imposing height – a strong stage presence, but he needed to use greater
variety of colour and dynamic to define Figaro’s character and his response
to the unfolding drama more precisely. As Susanna, Julieth Lozano stole the
show. Her soprano has a juicy middle range and there were flashes of real
brightness at the top; she controlled the vocal line as skilfully as she
commanded events. Indeed, this was not a Susanna to be messed with, as
Conall O’Neill’s disconcerted Antonio discovered when she ripped his potted
geranium to shreds when he frustrated her plans and wishes. But, Susanna’s
charm was equally apparent and ‘Deh vieni, non tardar’ was beautifully

I first enjoyed Sarah-Jane Brandon’s singing in 2010 when she performed
with Mark Morris’s Dance Group in

Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato

at the London Coliseum, and since then she’s been a frequent and rewarding
presence on London’s concert and opera stages. She seemed out of sorts,
though, in ‘Porgi, amor’ which, while controlled and firm of tone, lacked
Brandon’s usual sensitivity of phrasing and colour. That she was unwell was
confirmed when the cause for the extended interval was revealed by an
announcement that Brandon would be replaced in Acts 3 and 4 by Josephine
Goddard (the Countess in the alternative cast). Goddard demonstrated
impressive variety of tone and the poignancy of ‘Dove sono’ was enhanced by
some lovely pianissimo nuances.

Harry Thatcher was a convincing Count, complex, angry, frustrated and
repentant. He was no fool, but he was outwitted, and his growing irritation
and confusion was skilfully delineated by Thatcher in Act 3, culminating in
a fiery but stylish ‘Vedro mentr’io sospiro’. This was a thoughtful
characterisation, one which encouraged us to both condemn and understand,
and ‘Contessa perdano’ was touching. Thatcher’s elegant bearing and
urbanity were tempered with genuine human feeling, and we were inclined to
forgive this Count for his frailties.

Lauren Joyanne Morris has a full, rich mezzo but she didn’t entirely
persuade me in the role of Cherubino. A little too tall to be gamine,
Morris did not seem to have determined precisely how to convey the page’s
adolescent yearning – perhaps a little more direction would have helped.
She sang strongly, but I’d have preferred a lighter approach, particularly
in ‘Non so pi˘’ which needs to sound both youthfully innocent and slightly
breathless with a passion barely understood. Poppy Shotts was excellent as
Barbarina, and her Act 4 aria ‘L’ho perduta, me meschina’ was confident and

The comic trio entered into the Christmas-panto spirit, though the young
singers inevitably found it a challenge to really convince as aged
intriguers. Katy Thomson defined Marcellina strongly, though occasionally
over-did the Hyacinth Bucket caricature. Timothy Edlin was terrific as
Bartolo, relishing ‘La vendetta’ – and he was more dramatically persuasive
when he removed his tricorn hat and we could see Bartolo’s bald pate and
stringy curls. Joel Williams, as Basilio, completed the fine cast.

This was a long but enjoyable performance. The cast worked incredibly hard,
to good effect, and the drama grew in charm and shine as the evening
progressed. Tradition proved a real treat.

Claire Seymour

Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro

Count Almaviva – Harry Thatcher, Countess Rosina – Sarah-Jane
Brandon/Josephine Goddard, Susanna – Julieth Lozano, Figaro – Adam Maxey,
Cherubino – Lauren Joyanne Morris, Marcellina – Katy Thomson, Bartolo –
Timothy Edlin, Basilio – Joel Williams, Don Curzio – Samuel Jenkins,
Barbarina – Poppy Shotts, Antonio – Conall O’Neill, Bridesmaid 1/Chorus –
Camilla Harris, Bridesmaid 2/Chorus – Jessica Cale; Director – Sir Thomas
Allen, Conductor – Michael Rosewell, Designer – Lottie Higlett, Lighting
Designer – Rory Beaton, Choreographer – Kate Flatt, Chorus and Orchestra of
the Royal College of Music Opera Studio.

The Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London; Monday 26th November 2018.

product_title=The Marriage of Figaro: Royal College of Music, Britten Theatre
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour