Since Victorian Opera first emerged into the public eye in 2006, under the artistic direction of Richard Gill, one could almost say that Mozart, or the spirit of Mozart, has been their guiding philosophy. The kind of capering, un-fussily joyful spirit with which Gill imbues this latest VO production – precisely the kind of energy on which Figaro most happily feeds – is typical of the very best VO moments over the last six years.
Gill, who is not only conducting but also playing a delicate fortepiano accompaniment to the recitatives, is here closing out the quartet of four Mozart operas he proposed together with director Jean-Pierre Mignon back in 2005. This is the last opera Gill will conduct as artistic director at VO, and it makes a triumphant, albeit modest, note on which to signal his departure.
The small orchestra includes a group charmingly dubbed "Ludovico's Band" (after the sixteenth-century Spanish harpist) who employ a range of period instruments, presumably sixteenth- and seventeenth-century. Perhaps the quick if sometimes nervy élan of the group is connected to their antiquarian enthusiasm? If you get a chance, it's worth peering into the pit. Ruth Wilkinson looks like she's playing an enormous wheel of cheese. It's called a violone, apparently.
Mignon has described Gill as purist, a description that Gill may or may not quarrel with, but one which does, I think, describe his basic approach here. The pure essence of Figaro is a kind of high-spirited yearning, but one based in the melancholy of endless deferment and vexation. For all that he successfully conveys a sense of happy recklessness, Gill keeps a level-head and builds his Figaro on precisely this ground. The tempo is engagingly varied, often pushing toward a celebratory romp, but always pulled back. Through the early parts of act two, for instance, following "Porgi amor qualche ristoro", there is a breathy almost halting rhythm that checks the general jauntiness of the bedroom comedy.
This is the second time that Mignon has directed the opera, having also directed Beauchamp's original play twice. He clearly has an intimate knowledge of the drama, confidently stripping the presentation back to the barest stage essentials. The acting is incredibly good, especially, dare I say, for a Victorian Opera production. This is the benefit of having a veteran director so thoroughly steeped in the traditions of French neoclassical comedy. The farce at the end of act one made me giddy it was so much fun.
Paul Jackson's reliance on footlights in the lighting design is a masterstroke, not only lending a sort of candle-lit intimacy to the small space, but also suggesting expressions of impishness. A triangular thrust that juts into the pit is also a clever addition, being used both to trap, symbolically, the various schemers as their plans come undone, and also to relieve any sense of cramping in the closeness of the sets. The plainness of the setting also allows Christina Smith's striking costumes to standout.
Standout, too, does Jacqueline Porter as Susanna. She looks and sounds as fresh as a gentle zephyr. As Figaro, Andrew Collins makes an impressive visual pair with Porter. He's a very smooth Figaro, with something vaguely Ferris Bueller-ish about his implacability and resourcefulness. Tiffany Speight's voice as the Countess is consistently bright and compassionate. A slick Brett Carter gets in a lot of stage groping as the Count. Dimity Shepherd is a loveable Cheribino. Her "Voi che sapete" is given dramatic point by a well-controlled huskiness where the callow youth's desire gets the better of him.
"If I were a shoe," Richard Gill has said, "I would be a shoe on Mozart's foot. And I would love to be the shoe that walked with Mozart, or that helped Mozart walk, into the pit to conduct Figaro." In this cheerfully intimate performance, Richard, you are an excellent, snug-fitting shoe.
Jean-Pierre Mignon on The Marriage of Figaro