The first surprise in Fiona Shaw’s off-piste production is the all-white revolving maze of a set, peopled by such a troupe of bowing and scraping servantry – alternately linen-folding, bread-baking and boot-polishing – that we could have landed at Downton Abbey. Instead we’re pleasingly detached from time and place in a bravura attempt to modernize the ‘impossible to update’ Marriage of Figaro.

Purists found it distracting, but we suspect most Londonistas would love it as much as the cheeky, punchy libretto by Jeremy Sams. Shaw’s feminist influence tilts the scale heavily in favour of the women characters with Susannah more calculatedly manipulative than typical operatic maids, Barbarina chucking her guts up after bingeing on alcopops, and the Countess packing her Louis Vuittons to leave Almaviva.

John McMurray, ENO’s head of casting, came onstage to announce a substitute Countess in Elizabeth Llewellyn – the British Jamaican soprano who was such a thrilling Mimi in last season’s La Bohème. He should really have taken a bow for not only is she superb, calm and centred whilst the madder characters caper around her, the rest of the principals are outstanding without being household names. Iain Paterson is a robust and barely deferential Figaro while resisting the stentorian overtones of a Bryn Terfel or Thomas Allen, and musically quite brilliantly-matched with Roland Wood’s rather approachable middle-class Almaviva.

The production bowls along till the interval, after which the fourth act could be an anticlimax were it not for the fine renditions of each of the solo arias carrying the evening splendidly to a climax.

This has to be ENO’s ‘genius’ season because it includes so many delicious and brave choices in its repertoire: from Nico Muhly’s edgy exploration of internet sexuality in Two Boys and the harrowing but enthralling rediscovery The Passenger centred in Auschwitz, to a chocolate box of delights in the colourful Elixir of Love and now courting controversy by daring to deconstruct such a traditional and beloved warhorse as Figaro. With standby tickets from £10, this is a London institution to be proud of, and to support. Go.

Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro continues in repertoire at the Coliseum, with performances on October 12, 14, 19, 21, 26 and 29 and November 3, 5, 10 at 7pm.  Runs 3 hours 20 including one interval.  Tickets: 0871 911 0200 or from the ENO website.  Trailer video here.

Author received complimentary tickets and programme from the ENO press team.

Image by Sarah Lee

Londonist Originally published on Londonist