Oxford Opera Society’s production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro was certainly an ambitious undertaking. It has been years since Oxford has witnessed the production of a full-scale, student-run opera, and so it was of little surprise that the Sheldonian was at full capacity. The decision to frame Mozart’s work in the style of a 90s Hollywood film set was innovative and captivating. Not only did it enable Beth ‘Fitz’ Fitzpatrick to prove how opera does not have to be seen as a dying art, but it also helped portray the sleazy attempts of the Baron (Ben Gilchrist) at seducing Susanna (Sophie Akka) in a contemporary atmosphere that made Mozart’s story more relatable to the audience. Despite allusions to the dark side of Hollywood, it was excellent to see that Mozart’s comedic material did not suffer in the slightest as a result.
As the opera began, it was noticeable that the iconic overture perhaps lacked a degree of tidiness and precision. However, as soon as the Susanna and Figaro entered, the orchestra readjusted and played close attention to the performers. Dynamic balance was excellent and the coherence of the orchestra as a whole substantially improved. Once established, this level of diligence was maintained in the orchestra’s playing for the rest of the opera. A particular highlight from the orchestra in act one was Figaro’s aria Non più andrai, in which every section displayed impressive rhythmic accuracy. The flutes and oboes were particularly crisp, and contrast was achieved between them and the string section. The end of the first act saw Figaro’s (John Johnston) attempt to uncover Cherubino’s (Steph Garrett) deception, culminating in her/his discovery. Johnston encapsulated the teasing and playful nature fantastically, which in combination with the particular strength of the orchestra in this aria, made it one of the highlights of the evening.
The comedy throughout was particularly commendable. The Baron’s dumbfounded facial expressions were used at precisely the right moments to generate much laughter from the audience and highlighted the utterly bizarre scenarios he finds himself in. The infamous horse joke was delivered spectacularly at the end of act 2 and was aided by the hilarious and dramatic entrance of Antonio, the Count’s Gardener (Ed Freeman). The funniest moment of all, perhaps expectedly, was the moment in act three when Figaro discovers he is the long-lost illegitimate son of Marcellina (Chloe Fairbanks) and Bartolo (Ben Watkins). All three actors created an excellent dynamic onstage that created the suspense needed for a comic relief.
Whilst comedy was present in much of the production, sufficient space was made for the more delicate emotions to come through too. One notable example was the Countess’s (Jess Bergman) aria Dove sono I bei momenti in act three, which was touching and heartfelt. The orchestra created a rich, supportive sound in accompanying her here. In the next aria, when Susanna joins her, we were treated to Bergman’s warm tone wonderfully complementing Akka’s lighter strains. Their vocal qualities suited their respective roles, and when they came together it created a striking effect. Luke Mitchell’s stellar harpsichord playing deserves a special mention, perfectly accompanying the many recitativos.
Everyone involved in this production should be immensely proud with what they have achieved. The opera was engaging throughout, the quality of singing was phenomenal, there was alert and considerate accompanying from the orchestra, and excellent acting that brought out the comedy in Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto; it was truly an evening well spent. Here’s hoping this marks the beginning of more full-scale, student-run operas within Oxford.