The Marriage of Figaro. Music by W.A. Mozart. English libretto by Michael Gow after the Italian original by Lorenzo Da Ponte. Directed by Michael Gow. Conducted by Paul Fitzsimon. Opera Australia, Canberra Theatre Centre, August 25-27. canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.
Poor Figaro! His boss wants to sleep with his fiancee, while if he doesn't pay back the money he owes to his enemy's elderly, ugly housekeeper, he'll have to marry her instead.
Wedding preparations can be hell. For audiences, however, Mozart's comedy The Marriage of Figaro is four acts of delight.
Canberrans will be able to see Opera Australia's new touring production from August 25 to 27 while local children's choirs will be lucky enough to join the singers on-stage.
This is the third Mozart opera the company has taken on tour: it produced Don Giovanni, the tragicomedy about the notorious libertine, in 2012, and The Magic Flute, an odd mixture of fairy-tale and Freemasonry, in 2014.
Figaro is a perennial favourite. It balances a farcical plot – pig-headed aristocrats, clever servants, romantic complications, and people in disguise, hiding in cupboards and jumping out of windows – with an elegant, sophisticated score.
"The music is endlessly breathtaking," says Michael Gow, the award-winning playwright who directs this version. "Every time I sit through it, I say, 'Ah, I forgot how good this is'."
The opera, set over the course of a crazy mixed-up day in a Spanish castle, is based on Pierre Beaumarchais' 1778 play – an enormous success throughout Europe, as much for its polished wit as for its attack on aristocratic privilege. "It is the Revolution already put into action," Napoleon said.
In Vienna, Emperor Joseph II deemed the play immoral and banned it, worried by its revolutionary tone, but he relaxed his ban in 1786 for Mozart's opera, which turned the politically charged play into a warm and witty comedy of manners.
More than two centuries later, the opera still delights and moves audiences. Gow thinks he knows why.
"It shows that life's a mess, that it's hilarious, that nothing's ever what it seems, and it's not necessarily the people who think they're in charge who are in charge. Mozart suggests that love is the only thing that ever rescues us or gets us out of terrible situations. In the end, it's about climbing down off your ego and being kind and loving to another human being."
Like its touring predecessors, Gow has written an English-language version of Figaro, to make it more immediate.
"A friend hates going to the opera," he says, "because it's like people shouting Italian restaurant menus at each other. Singing it in English means it's not just noise for the audience; they can understand what people are saying and follow the story. It's like watching any play or TV show, and not a strange, alien event."
Although sung in English, the opera is a standard performing version, with the recitatives – sung dialogue accompanied by a harpsichord, which a non-Italian audience can find dry – replaced with brisk spoken dialogue, like a modern musical.
Unlike the earlier productions of Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute, both updated to the 20th century, Figaro is set in period.
The costumes are late 18th century, while the set, its walls painted with an Arcadian landscape of trees, water and sky, is based on Francisco Goya's pastoral paintings.
"It's traditional, but not utterly," explains Gow. "We set out to give regional audiences a sense of what they might see at the Sydney Opera House or the Victorian Arts Centre. They don't get to see the visual splendour of a mainstream production, so we found a way of giving it to them."
Bringing opera to audiences outside Sydney and Melbourne is important.
"After all," Gow points out, "they pay their taxes, like people in cities who can go to opera houses! They deserve to have what their city cousins get on tap."
On its three-month tour of regional Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania, the company will perform in theatres, piggeries and basketball courts. The troupe is only in most places for a night, so the set has to be unpacked, put up, lit, rehearsed on and taken down again all in the space of a day.
Two casts swap each performance; a soprano might sing a lead part one night and be in the chorus the next. Some singers are established soloists or in the Opera Australia chorus. Others are up-and-coming stars who may, like singers on previous tours, join international companies or Covent Garden's Young Artists Programme.
"In 15 years," Gow says, "they'll be on the main stages anywhere in the world."
Tomorrow's opera stars might also be in the local children's choirs who learn songs before the opera arrives in each venue, and rehearse and perform with the professional cast. In Canberra, the Wild Voices Music Theatre and the Woden Valley Youth Choir will each sing two nights.
And the rest of us, who aren't performing, can enjoy one of Mozart's greatest comedies and wish the musicians well on the tour – just as its composer, a small-town boy, travelled Europe performing more than two centuries ago.
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