The Marriage of Figaro - English National Opera, 5 October 2011 (first night)
In Fiona Shaw's new ENO production, Barbarina, bottle in hand, is pissed as a fart from start to finish. She even throws up in a corner at one point. Would she really go for Cherubino or the Count otherwise, Shaw seems to be asking. Like a Geordie lass on a Friday night, Shaw thinks it's the beer goggles that make Barbarina such an easy target for her randy suitors. She allowed Mary Bevan to turn this usually throwaway role into something worth watching.
But more importantly Shaw points to a whole new direction in Mozart interpretation. What if Donna Anna succumbed to Don Giovanni because she was three sheets to the wind, and only chucked him out when she sobered up? What if Dorabella and Fiordiligi warmed up with a few beers before grabbing the 'Albanians' - whose disguises they were too plastered to twig? What if the entire field of Mozartian female morals could be explained away as an anatomical response to booze? Has Fiona Shaw opened up a can of Fosters here?
Men are beastly predators she warns, and a woman needs wit and cunning to outplay them. The myth of the Minotaur - aptly half-man, half-animal - underlines the production design, although you might not get this without reading the programme note. Both house and garden have interlocking, maze-like walls. Bull's head trophies adorn the walls. Dead animals are dragged in like sacrificial offerings for the beastly Count - who's on the hunt for more.
It is women who, morally and intellectually, rule this domain. Susanna and the Countess represent the Enlightenment ideal of civilisation, while the sullen Figaro and boorish Count (who, remember, is everything Figaro aspires to) remain scraping their knuckles on the floor. The Countess starts out in period corsets, but by the end she’s wearing the trousers – literally. She stands victorious in full modern dress while the humiliated Count is reduced to his underpants. But if you didn't know the ending, you might expect the two women to finish up together. Shaw's Count and Figaro seem barely worth scheming for.
Despite the obligatory bustling servants cluttering up the revolving set, the social dimension takes second place to the sexual politics for Shaw. The concept is sometimes clumsily executed, and the clutter of props, extras and superfluous projections suggest a lack of faith in its essentials, but it's such a rare pleasure to see Mozart given a feminist reading I really don't care too much about the details.
Sadly, Kate Valentine, who I'd really hoped to see, was sick. Her place as Countess was taken at short notice by Elizabeth Llewellyn, whose poise and poignancy eclipsed everyone else on stage. If we're being picky, the voice itself can be unevenly textured and grainy in patches. But her absorption in the role is total, and the emotional impact overwhelming. As with Ermonela Jaho and Marina Poplavskaya, you're buying the package, not the odd note.
Devon Guthrie's singing wasn't the last word in elegance, but her Susanna was at least lively and likeable. The production wasn't kind to Roland Wood's Count or Iain Paterson's Figaro, but they gave good solid performances, as did the rest of the cast, with Kathryn Rudge’s well-acted but shrieky Cherubino the only slight disappointment.
Paul Daniel's odd tempos and languorous phrasing hardly made the evening pass by in a blur, but the ENO orchestra did at least play beautifully for him. The less said about Jeremy Sams' laddish translation though, the better.
Don't expect massive discounts on this one by the way - advance sales have been relatively good so price cuts will be limited.