Irish director has figured out Figaro

Fiona Shaw had parts in the 'Harry Potter' films and 'True Blood' series. Photo / Supplied
Fiona Shaw had parts in the 'Harry Potter' films and 'True Blood' series. Photo / Supplied

It's a challenge any director would relish, but might fear: a Mozart opera so famous that it carries a weight of expectation second to none. This week, English National Opera unveils its new staging of The Marriage of Figaro and in the director's chair is Fiona Shaw, the Irish actress and director extraordinaire.

Shaw, besides her ever-popular roles in True Blood and the Harry Potter films, is one of the towering figures in today's classical theatre. She is not a newcomer to opera direction, having already tackled two 20th-century works, Vaughan Williams' Riders to the Sea and Hans Werner Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers for ENO. This, though, is her first venture into the heartland of Mozart and the 18th century.

A frequent collaborator with the director Deborah Warner, Shaw has sometimes starred in productions that involve issues of gender politics - but she has not tried to present a feminist Figaro.

Instead, what we can expect is an account informed by exceptionally deep engagement with its characters' emotional truths.

The Marriage of Figaro, based on Pierre Beaumarchais' play of the same title, takes place across one "day of mirth and madness". Figaro, valet to the Count, is trying to marry Susanna, maid to the Countess. But the Count, having abolished the feudal droit du seigneur that entitled him to sleep with a servant girl on her wedding night, wishes to bring back that law in order to have his way with Susanna. The situation's complexity snowballs as the page boy Cherubino goes into hormonal meltdown over every woman he sees, while the housekeeper, Marcellina, has designs on Figaro for herself until she discovers that he is her long-lost son.

The performers, for their part, credit Shaw's attention to detail for taking them far into the opera's world. Iain Paterson, who sings Figaro, has performed the role several times elsewhere. "But in this production he's darker than I've ever played him - a far more complicated character," he says. Susanna is the very young American soprano Devon Guthrie; still studying at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, she is making her European debut. Shaw describes her as "a huge talent".

"This opera is packed tight with incident, plot, counterplot and emotional shadings - and it can turn on a sixpence," adds the conductor, Paul Daniel. "What Fiona does is to get right inside the text, right inside each moment. This is why you thank your lucky stars to have her around."


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