For its final season in the garden of Lady Ottoline Morrell's enchanting Oxfordshire Manor house, the ever-enterprising Garsington Opera, established in 1989 by the late Leonard Ingrams, included the opera with which the whole venture kicked off: Figaro. In 1989 it was Opera 80 (a forerunner of ETO) that provided the production, directed by Stephen Unwin in the years since then there have been productions by Michael McCaffery, Stephen Unwin (again) and, in 2005 a vintage production by John Cox. It was the latter which was revived for the 2010 season and a very astute choice it proved to be. A Figaro of this quality, sung and played with delightful naturalness as dusk stole over the façade of the house and its adjacent garden, made one quite nostalgic for all that has been indeed, there were more ghosts than usual mingling with the urns and cypresses in Act Four
To begin at the beginning: the concept. Cox is a past master of making the intricate look easy, making the inhabitants of Count Almaviva's mansion move freely and logically into their positions where something is always just about to happen. Of course in the Garsington setting it is relatively easy to make Cherubino's escape into the garden an unusually effective piece of theatre, and a drunken old Antonio can potter to his heart's delight among the geraniums and connecting pathways: but it is a greater test of the director's art to plot the onstage pathways and connecting lines between the characters. With all the elements of a mansion house scattered across the Garsington stage, Cox used every hiding place, every logical entry and exit point, every positional combination of his eight main characters. As a result this Figaro had light and space to breathe, it flowed freely, the momentum of une folle journée was never lost. Watching an opera I have probably seen more times than any other, I was enchanted by the life and energy that can be made to flow from it.
In the pit, Douglas Boyd proved to be a natural Mozartian. His tempi were broadly on the fast side, but with no loss of detail, and the playing he got from the Garsington Orchestra was accomplished throughout. Boyd also proved to have a natural rapport with his singers, and there were no signs of awkwardness between pit and stage, as there often can be: ensembles went with a swing, solo numbers and duets were nicely judged, sforzandi and dynamic contrasts abounded delightful.
Delightful too was the Susanna of Sophie Bevan warm-toned, assured, full of spirit and effortlessly in control of her Figaro (James Oldfield) from the word go. She schemed as he counted and measured, she also bloomed vocally a while before he got going. Bevan's voice is attractive, much more than a soubrette, with plenty of power whenever needed. I liked her performance enormously. Oldfield was a reliable, dependable Figaro and once or twice he flashed into real life particularly when brushing with Count Almaviva but on the whole I found his musical personality a little subdued and some of the humour in the role escaped him.
Grant Doyle was the Count. He has greater stage experience than Oldfield, and it showed: this Count was lithe, energetic, a dangerous man to cross. But thankfully as he is indeed crossed, time after time as the opera progresses Doyle found the happy medium between grand seigneur and comic dupe. His voice is on the light side, but the timbre is attractive and Doyle sang cleanly and crisply throughout.
Garsington made an interesting choice of Countess Kishani Jayasinghe, a Sri Lankan soprano who was in the ROH Jette Parker Young Artists Programme until 2008. Younger then many a Countess I have seen, Jayasinghe made an immediate impression with a dark, velvety vocal timbre in the cruelly exposed number that begins Act Two, Porgi, Amor. But she did not really develop any personality onstage, vocal or representational, and although her interplay with Susanna and with Cherubino was deft and assured in the succession of great numbers that make the end of Act Two one of opera's supreme experiences, Jayasinghe under-characterised her part. The voice is often lovely but the face and body lack dramatic energy and, as a result, action around the Countess sometimes flagged. I would rate her a near miss in the part for now and would enjoy hearing her again in five years time.
Cherubino was played by the young Swedish mezzo Anna Grevelius. Deft and knowing, she made the most of the mischievous aspects of Cherubino's character and gave us some lovely singing. 'Non so piu' was taken at medium tempo, allowing Grevelius to phrase the lines and float the endings, instead of snatching at the notes as so often can happen. She made a strong impression in all the right ways.
And the strength in depth of this Garsington Figaro extended to Jean Rigby as Marcellina what a joy to hear this role so well sung (and for once it would have been great to hear her Act Four aria) and to Conal Coad as Dr Bartolo, who relished his showpiece aria 'La Vendetta', and who underpinned all his ensemble pieces with a sonorous bass line. And taking the production as a whole, it was the ensemble playing at its core that made the work come alive, one last time, in its unique setting. What a way for Figaro to take its leave of Garsington! What a joy to have been there!
Photos: John Cox and Sophie Bevan