A severed head of a monumental statue presents a memento mori as a duo are caught “dogging” under a doona while the dulcet tones of Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro flutter past in West Australian Opera’s final show at The Maj for 2021.
There’s something more than a marriage going on as Figaro (Jeremy Kleeman) and Susanna (WAO rising star Prudence Sanders) try to instil domesticity while a random mob of removalists disrupt their endeavours, with the only hint of Mozart’s day a discarded portrait of Napoleon.
Natural acting and voice from the romantic leads draw the audience into a familiar tale with a dark underbelly; the Count — a bombastic and magnetic Teddy Tahu Rhodes channelling Harvey Weinstein in bathrobe and smoking jacket — hasn’t quite ruled out exercising his feudal right of the first night with Susanna.
Figaro rails against this lightning-rod issue in the cantata, Se vuol ballare, “If you want to dance, little count, I’ll call the tune”, as Rhodes pirouettes past in cartoonish fantasy — a signature quality of this Opera Queensland production deftly directed by Patrick Nolan and provocatively designed by Marg Horwell, with lithe choreography by Elise May.
A shallow stage replete with multiple doors creates a 2-D space where thought and speech bubbles flash up in surtitles incorporated into the set, imparting a sense of immediacy and transience.
Vaudeville touches from experienced WAO duo Nicole Youl (Marcellina) and Robert Hofmann (Don Bartolo) expertly connect with comic opera traditions, but the darker side of the pre-revolutionary French plays by Beaumarchais that underpin the plot rumble along in the dramatic aria, La Vendetta. When Marcellina’s designs on Figaro bring her into contact with Susanna, the sparks fly in heavily ironic compliments.
The libidinous, cross-dressing Cherubino, played by Perth mezzo Amy Yarham, injects ingenue energy; the ambiguity of the character given a new lease on life in a non-binary age.
Likewise, Matthew Lester as Don Basilio — an importunate lounge lizard in a shell suit — freshens the mix; and the vocal quality across principals and chorus is first-class, ably supported by WA Symphony Orchestra and conductor Chris van Tuinen.
But it’s hard to go past Rhodes’ presence and gravity, both in solo voice and as foundation to ensemble singing in plot-setting banter.
Kleeman’s Figaro is a shape-shifting trickster who subtly inveigles the chorus into the scene to avert a crisis, and then sends the hapless Cherubino off to the wars with perhaps the best-known aria, No piu andrai, “No more will you flutter around”.
And yet there’s more.
The second act introduces the Countess — a queen moment from UWA and WAO alumna Lisa Harper-Brown, voice and presence wan yet enticing, a picture of desolation amid riches; the thin space now a boudoir full of bling but bereft of joy.
A sub plot is hatched by the Countess, Susanna and Cherubino, with the canzona, Voi che sapete, “You who know love”, a seductive line open to any gender.
When the Count blunders in demanding satisfaction the contrast is stark: his solution is an industrial-scale set of boltcutters, while the despairing Countess clutches a key to her breast.
Meanwhile the character roles keep on giving; Antonio the gardener (Callen Dellar) injects some bucolic-alcoholic spirit, and Marcellina, Bartolo and Basilio are like three stooges in their patter-song plotting against Figaro — another issue Figaro has to fix, like a high-octane game of Whack-a-mole; every time he solves the question, the question changes.
Act three enacts the marriage in a crumbling grand ballroom, but not before the Count turns vengeful after overhearing Susanna’s thought bubble to Figaro: Hai gia vinta la causa, “We’ve already won”.
The Count’s vow of revenge turns the plot, yet it is the women who win in both musical and Machiavellian terms.
Che soave zefiretto, “What a gentle little zephyr”, sung first by the Countess, joined in duet by Susanna, is a pin-drop moment setting up the wedding and the final twist of the knife.
Act four, in the garden, is beyond spoiler alert, as the shape-shifting Figaro finds his world in flux: Aprite un po quegli occhi, “Open your eyes”, depairs for men led by women, a dramatic moment accompanied by Easter Island-like apparitions; the last fatalistic chords beaten out on the stage with an impotent fist.
Susanna then holds pride of place, her rose aria Deh vieni, non tardar, o gioja bella, “Oh, come, don’t be late, my beautiful joy”, rising ethereally over a comic landscape as Figaro clowns clumsily in the background.
Yet the two are reconciled and the Count’s final comeuppance at the Countess’s hand is the final knot in a #MeToo tale with a difference.
(And if anyone thinks Mozart is sexist, check the loo queues in the interval).
The Marriage of Figaro continues until October 30. www.waopera.asn.au.