Review: Le nozze di Figaro
I have always thought that there is a strong resemblance between music and gastronomy. Delicious food and flavourful performances both make us happy after all. As we get older and try new sounds and tastes, even though we always prefer the familiar flavours of our childhood, we ourselves mature in the process.
One could say that rock music is ‘spicy’ (hence it is not for everyone’s palette), while carefully designed pop songs resemble fast food, in which the profit-seeking industry often prefers quantity over quality. Then there is Western classical music, which would be the equivalent of fine dining, but many find its courses old, boring, and too gourmet. The epitome of it all, the Michelin-star experience, would be opera.
Unfortunately, its social rituals (extravagance, dress code, classism, and even racism) privatised the sphere to exclude those without access to a certain level of education (i.e. money) required to understand the music by decoding its compositional mastery and lyrical language for far too long. This has now changed, as this slowly dying industry does everything in its power to attract a wide range of audiences by, for example, providing them with subtitles to understand the foreign libretti and with pamphlets to introduce the cast and the synopsis, by ditching the dress code, and by making the ticket prices affordable even to us, students.
Still, opera can be a heavy bite for most people at first, as it does not follow the tapas-like three- minute tracks we have been conditioned to endure, so it also takes longer to chew. Fortunately, Mozart offers a selection of operatic delicacies that help those interested in opera step foot in this enchanting world with his relatively short and easily digestible works. And they are anything but boring.
The light course of last Monday evening’s The Marriage of Figaro (K. 492, 1786) was prepared by the musical director Peter Whelan and served to us by the cast of the Royal Northern College of Music. The story’s evergreen themes (financial troubles, exploitation, philandering, jealousy, sexual harassment) could be adopted by any modern telenovela, making it all the more relevant and relatable to the viewer. The recipe of this hilariously complicated romantic comedy is as follows:
- Put one womaniser count and his suspicious wife, a flirtatious servant with a jealous barber of a groom, and, to spice it all up, a pinch of troublemaking extras together;
- Mix it with plenty of jokes, surprises, some cliché, sexual tension, a spatula-shaped birthmark, and deep-fry it in love;
- Let sweet singing, strong acting, and an aromatic orchestra take care of the rest.
Et voilà! Opera à la laughter, breathtaking music, and a standing ovation.
Although the orchestra’s brass section occasionally brought me back to reality like an uncooked bite or an unexpected raisin that explodes under your teeth, and the basso continuo (the keyboard accompaniment) was a little dry, the actors’ electrifying performance still managed to get me completely lost in the humorous yet beautifully crafted universe they portrayed. Of course, this is also the merit of the phenomenal costume and stage designer, Bob Bailey, who added an extra layer of visual pleasure to this multi-sensory adventure.
However, I must add, changing the stage could have been a more efficient and invisible process; each one was like a painful television advertisement that interrupted the smooth flow of the storyline, making it difficult to escape reality for longer than the length of an aria. Indeed, waiting for the cast to change it all at the beginning of the third act was rather annoying; they could have quickly sorted it all out during the break instead of making us awkwardly watch them do it. Nonetheless, Bailey’s minimalist stage design was clever and pragmatic.
Both the main characters and the chorus deserve nothing but praise, yet I would like to highlight three names that made this evening unforgettable: award-winning Samuel Snowden (Figaro, the barber), the Australian Sarah Prestwidge (Susanna, the servant), and the hilarious Morgana Warren- Jones (Marcellina, Figaro’s bride-to-be-then-turned-out-to-be-mother).
Their professionalism, facial expressions, theatrical precision, unbelievable vocal ranges, and singing techniques have reminded me why I fell in love with opera in the first place and proved to the spectators that the post-human- like voices of these singers—the result of a lifetime of hard work—are the very reason why this epicurean genre will never be out-of-date. Johannes Brahms once famously refused an invitation to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, saying that he would sooner read the score at home, but boy would he have been sorry had he missed out on this triumvirate of rare gems!
The positive changes of this once so exclusive world not only could be seen through the cast’s wonderful diversity but by the lack of restricting social aspects opera once entailed. As a result, the audience was not full of upper-middle-class white people wearing expensive haute couture, but a collection of people from far and wide, simply there to enjoy the performance.
Opera is not for everyone; it undoubtedly has the Marmite effect, but you will only know if you like it once you try it. It is different from other forms of concerts where we dance and sing along, or scream in ecstasy (although the audience did pop some celebratory bravi like champagne corks), or even from West End musicals. Here, we sit still and spectate. Once we get past the initial challenge of looking at the stage through the ‘fourth wall’ (i.e. a clear division between stage and audience, a social rule that we are not to be involved in the live music-making by any means, no matter how much we wish to), we find something in opera that will help us understand why we still perform these epic masterpieces after hundreds of years, and why the elaborate opera houses, competing with the most breathtaking places of worship, were erected in the first place.
Whilst Le nozze di Figaro has finished its short run at the RNCM, I encourage everyone to take the opportunity to try another one of their audiovisual culinary experiences – especially because the RCNM is literally next door to both the University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University campuses. Check out their programme, and if there’s a show that tickles your senses, book yourself a seat and savour the music. You’ll thank me later. Bon appétit!