I’m always amazed by the success of the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM). I think I’ve seen just about all of its opera productions in the past couple of years and enjoyed each one. I remember suggesting to a nearby art school that to emulate its neighbour’s success it should rebrand itself as the Royal Northern College of Art. Alas, this fell on stony ground.
The RNCM’s production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is a good example of its continued reputation as a centre of musical education excellence producing what seems to be a never-ending line of talented musicians and singers. As if to emphasise my point, the centrepiece of the programme is a list of previous opera students and where they are now. It runs from The Royal Opera House to Opera Australia, an impressive range of worldwide employment.
Mozart is as difficult an act to pull off as you can get. Complex plotting, musical dexterity, acting ability and comic timing are all part of his genius. Mozart composed Le Nozze aged just 30 and it is still the most performed opera. The Marriage of Figaro is an ‘opera buffa’, a comic opera that had me laughing until tears rolled down my cheeks. The story concerns the marriage of Figaro (Liam James Karai) to Susana (Pasquale Orchard), both of whom work for the Count and Contessa of Almavvia (Emyr Jones and Georgie Malcolm). The aristocrats have a bad case of wandering eye that so often afflicts their class. The Count wants Susana and the Contessa has her eye on a young page boy, Cherubino (Melissa Gregory). It is a farce worthy of Brian Rix himself (younger readers might want to google that).
On the eve of the wedding, Bartolo (Conrad Chatterton), a lawyer, and his client Marcellina (Lila Chrisp) demand that Figaro repay an outstanding debt. Failure to do so will require Figaro to marry Marcellina. It is a story full of mistaken identities, unfulfilled libidos and unrequited love. The bit that made me roll with tears of laughter occurred when it turns out that Marcellina is Figaro’s mother and Bartolo his father. With identities revealed, libidos satisfied and love requited, everyone lives happily ever after.
At more than three hours, the main players sustained a concentration and an energy to make the Marriage a resounding triumph. While I thought the wedding dance a little clunky, with first night nerves and being expected to sing in a foreign language and dance in a confined space, it was forgivable. Having said that, its very clumsiness added an air of village authenticity.
Karai as Figaro and Orchard as Susana were superb, as was Malcolm’s Contessa. Their attention to the musical difficulty of Mozart’s arias was note-perfect. But the star of the afternoon was Emyr Jones as the hapless Count. At times revengeful, scheming, confused and horny, he was outstanding in such a complex role. Meanwhile, the orchestra played with a lightness of touch that Mozart demands under the watchful eye of Conductor Peter Whelan. Bob Bailey’s set and costume design complemented Johnathan Cocker’s direction. As ever, the RNCM opera chorus sang in glorious harmony marshalled by chorus master, Kevin Thraves.
As I said, I always enjoy RNCM opera productions. They are so professional, and I completely understand why their graduates are in such demand. I look forward to seeing where they end up on the next step in their professional careers.
By Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent
Images by Robin Clewley
The Marriage of Figaro is at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music until April 2, 2022. For more information, or to book tickets, click here.