I'm sure I'm not the only twenty-year-old who's intimidated by opera. Perhaps for you, like me, it feels like an obscure form of storytelling: hard to understand – especially when the libretto (lyrics) are in Italian – and too rarefied to just relax and enjoy. The drama is high-octane, the arias (solos) are very high-pitched, and I am out of my depth.

I think I've found our solution, though. The Fitzwilliam Chamber Opera's production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is a spectacle that you can't help but relax and enjoy. In fact, Catherine Groom, the producer, made this her priority; she picked Figaro for this year's production because “it's so funny,” and, crucially, “it’s so accessible.” For her, the humour, farce, and “warm, alive” characters mean that Figaro lands with everyone, from seasoned opera fans to students who just want some comic relief. It also helps that the libretto (a translation by Jonathan Lyness) is in modern English.

It also helps that this comedy is in the hands of a master comic director. Paul Schlesinger, the BBC's ex-Head of Radio Comedy and producer of programmes such as That Mitchell and Webb Look and W1A, is back in his alma mater to direct Figaro. His expertise shows, especially in the slick, knowing comic acting. As I watch, the cast navigates an involved, often absurd storyline with dazzling confidence, hitting every humorous beat with relish, and making sure you're always in on the joke. Catherine in part attributes this to psychological realism: “they're like modern TV characters,” she points out, “which makes them perfect for Paul to direct.” It's true that, as I watch the dress rehearsal, I’m won over by Figaro and his friends; they are by turns romantic, bumbling, and cunning, and often unexpectedly tongue-in-cheek. They are also, happily, extremely talented singers.

"Figaro lands with everyone, from seasoned opera fans to students who just want some comic relief"

It is an unwieldy plot, though, and I sometimes catch myself forgetting how we got into a situation. For example, at one point, a lovesick teenage boy hides in a wardrobe wearing pink negligee; a bride-to-be crouches behind a coat stand; and an angry Count is in the middle, waving a crowbar. Although the cast carry these complications with confidence, I struggle to recall how they came to be there. But that doesn't seem to matter: it’s a farce, and it helps to think of the scenes like a series of sketches. The characters stumble into them together, and then manage, hilariously, to navigate their way out, winding their way round to a triumphant, feel-good ending.

Figaro turns on an engaged couple, Figaro and Susanna, trying to evade their employer’s “feudal right” to sleep with Susanna before the wedding. In this sense, it’s about two lovers trying to yank their romance into the modern world. I get the impression that this production of Figaro has the same goal. Paul has chosen to set the modern English libretto in a stylish Fifties boudoir, with diamond-chequered wallpaper, leather chairs and lots of brown and orange. This is well-matched by Natalie Willis’ costume design: there are natty, sloping hats, sharp suits, and the aforementioned fabulously-swishy negligee. I’m told that it’s been lent from the National Theatre’s Peter Pan.


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Catherine is keen to credit the college’s maintenance department for building this smart and evocative set. She also praises the “wonderful” housekeeping and gardening teams who’ve been manoeuvring all the equipment and fashioning floral wreaths from the Fitzwilliam gardens, and Fitz’s répétiteurs-in-residence, Sam Hartley and Pierre Riley, whose musical direction, conducting, and piano-rehearsing have carried the production process. Clearly, a great deal of expertise and appreciation has gone into this production, and the output is a real joy to witness. It’s hilarious, it’s charming, and if you’re not sure about opera, I think you’ll still love it.

The Fitzwilliam Chamber Opera's production of The Marriage of Figaro is on at the Fitzwilliam College Auditorium at 7:30pm on Friday 3rd May and at 2:30pm on Saturday 4th May.

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