Heritage Opera's 'Grimeborn' production raises the roof – and a few eyebrows – at London's Arcola Theatre
‘Wake up and smell the coffee / Life's not all sweet and frothy.’ Not perhaps what Mozart had originally intended his eponymous hero to sing in Act 4 of The Marriage of Figaro but, in Heritage Opera’s production, it worked a treat. Performed at the beginning of this month as part of the Grimeborn Opera Festival in Dalston, east London, this was a Figaro unlike any I’d seen before.
My opera-going ventures have been, admittedly, somewhat limited – orchestral concerts and dance performances occupy most of my spare time – and they have tended to be large-scale affairs, at ENO and Covent Garden, and (a couple of times) at La Scala and the Met. In other words, mega casts, mammoth orchestras, substantial scenery and lavish costumes.
But Heritage Opera is poles apart from such excesses. The company began in 2006 with the aim of presenting chamber opera in stately homes. Says musical director Chris Gill, ‘I wanted to give audiences a professional-quality musical and dramatic performance but in a much more intimate environment than most theatres can offer.’ For the most part, solo piano provides the accompaniment to the company’s productions.
Over the past six years, Heritage has performed all sorts of repertoire – including Purcell, Mozart, Rossini, Puccini, Britten, and even G & S – in venues across the northwest of England. Last year, the company commissioned a chamber opera, Mansfield Park, from Jonathan Dove; the production toured in August and received its grand finale at the 2011 Grimeborn Festival – a festival offering, since 2007, an ‘alternative Glyndebourne’.
Which is where Heritage Opera found itself, a year after Mansfield Park, performing Figaro. The festival’s home, this year the Arcola Tent while the nearby Arcola Theatre is being renovated, is a flimsy affair – dodgy portaloo-style toilets, a ramshackle bar and a ceiling that looks like it might cave in at any moment – but that all added to the charm. This was opera pared back to its basics – wonderful music, performed tirelessly by pianist Jonathan Ellis, exquisite arias, sung with aplomb by a cast of highly experienced singers, and a simple, period setting complete with potted plants for the garden scene! Performed ‘in the round’, the production lured us in from the outset; we were privy to saucy looks between characters, secret aside glances and numerous entrances and exits among the audience.
But it was Chris Gill’s translation that set this production apart. As one audience member remarked to me on the train on the way back, ‘I’ve been to ENO lots of times, but this libretto was better than anything I’ve heard there or elsewhere.’ Gill has a knack of being colloquial yet poetic, witty (sometimes smutty!) yet reverent where necessary. While the libretto for arias sung by Susanna and the Countess (Serenna Wagner and Sarah Helsby Hughes, both superb) was appropriately heartfelt, Figaro (a genial Mark Saberton) had the lion’s share of the crowd-pleasing one-liners: ‘Blimey! And I thought the bastard liked me,’ he exclaims in Act One, when he discovers that the Count (a smouldering Thomas Eaglen) is letching after his beloved Susanna. ‘God, what a nerve! I want to smash his face in!’ And to the pubescent, women-mad Cherubino (an impressive Lorna James), who’s departing for the army: ‘There you go: you can like it or lump it / Now, instead of the sweet smell of crumpet / You'll wake up to the sound of a trumpet.’ Clever rhymes but, more importantly, musical ones, that fit perfectly within the contours of Mozart’s melodies.
There were laugh-out-loud moments, such as when Figaro sings to Antonio the gardener, ‘Why should we credit a word that you say / When you're pissed as a fart every day?’ and eyebrow-raising modern slang from the Count and Susanna: ‘She was so easy! / He makes me queasy!’
But none of it was gratuitous, and nothing was thrown in by accident. The libretto suited the plot – which, let’s face it, is absolutely bonkers – down to the ground, and made Mozart’s opera absolutely accessible to new audiences, without being condescending to aficionados. Combined with a stellar cast and spot-on direction (from soprano Helsby Hughes), this was a Figaro that I’ll remember for a long time to come.
Heritage Opera performs La bohème from October 26 to November 4; for details, and to book tickets, visit heritageopera.co.uk
Sarah Kirkup is deputy editor of Gramophone. She plays flute and piano, and sings with her local church choir. Sarah is a fan of ballet and contemporary dance, and attends as many productions - particularly at Covent Garden - as she can.