Canberra Times preview

All the way with Figaro

A small troupe takes on one of the best-loved operas with intimacy and style

by Natasha Rudra. Canberra Times, 1 August 2007 : Times 2 supplement, p.8.

Adams picture
Sheena Smith (Susanna), Peter Laurence (Figaro), Tunja Doss (Countess Rosina), Stephen Hines (Count Almaviva), Leila Fetter (Marcellina) and Ron Presswell (Basilio) in Figaro. Picture: Melissa Adams

Musicians Patricia Whitbread and Colin Forbes are preparing for a difficult task. For three gruelling hours from tomorrow, they and their small troop of opera lovers will enter a world of disguise, mistaken identity and amorous advances in a short season of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.

Their amateur group, the Canberra Academy of Music and Related Arts, features several of Whitbread's voice students.

The group puts on one production a year to give members a chance to explore and perform music. So what makes them choose a full-length opera with some of the most complex vocal parts available? Whitbread blames her students. "We actually did a cut-down version last year," she says. "The singers did so well, and were so encouraged amongst themselves, that they said, 'couldn't we do the whole show?' "

The "whole show" involves 11 principals and a frenetic farce. The plot revolves around the former Barber of Seville, Figaro, and his would-be bride Susanna. They are trying to marry despite the advances of the unfaithful Count Almaviva.

Mozart's infectious, sophisticated music, combined with Lorenzo del Ponte's libretto, have made the opera one of the best loved. Sometimes this has had secured the larger insights of Figaro, which probes the politics of marriage between the upper and lower classes. The opera caused a stir with the 18th-century audiences, who were uneasy with its depiction of the social politics of the times

With a small company and without the resources of a bigger production house, director Forbes has opted for a chamber production [. . .]. "I actually play all the orchestral parts on a piano, or a keyboard or harpsichord," he says. "We have the facilities to do it in the way we are doing it -- in a chamber situation."

The strip-backed production also suits St Philip's Church O'Connor, where the group regularly rehearses and performs. Forbes says Figaro is an opera that doesn't require a great deal of room. "It doesn't require the massive space" of, say, Puccini's Turandot. "When all is said and done, it's being performed in a church and there's a big stone altar," he says. "So we have to adapt around there."

Whitbread says, "we have to work around the existing fixtures that we have. But that's not nearly such a massive issue."

The group is going for simplicity, with a few custom-built sets that will fit into the church and be easily changed. But Forbes says staging is hardly the focus. "You really can get away without any sets at all. It's about people. It's really a chamber work, despite the fact that it' done at Covent Garden and La Scala. It has to be intimate, but the advantage of that is that it really does show the humanity of it and the personal story of the drama. It helps to throw that out into relief, because we're not relying on massive lighting effects or staging."

Much of that personal story will also come from the cast members, many of whom are tutored or coached by the couple. Whitbread is cheerful about the fact that it is an amateur production, and says the lead singers bring an extra zest. "They're definitely not professionals, because most of them are involved in other disciplines," she says. "In fact, three lead girls are writing doctoral theses in economics, law and biology. So this is their sanity, I believe."

Those lead girls are Tanjua Doss, Alison Knight and Sheena Smith. Doss, an economics analyst, is Countess Almaviva, Knight who plays Cherubino, page boy in love with a countess, is writing her doctoral thesis in zoology at the Australian National University, and Smith, in the lead role of Susannah, is a PhD law student.

Other principal roles are played by some of the couple's fellow musicians or teachers, and Whitbread, as vocal director, jokes about having to be careful with her musical points and directions.

Whitbread believes having other pursuits and passions gives her singers an edge and makes them work harder at researching their parts. "They bring to their role such an insight, because they are such clever people, and they really do their homework," she says. "I've got absolute admiration for these people because they are understanding what they're doing. It's moving with a lot of flow and a lot of confidence."