VO delights with Figaro

A sold out crowd enjoyed the opening of The Marriage of Figaro Saturday. (Monte Greenshields/The Banff Centre)

A sold out crowd enjoyed the opening of The Marriage of Figaro Saturday. (Monte Greenshields/The Banff Centre)

On Saturday night, to a sold out crowd, the Vancouver Opera continued its golden anniversary season with a thoroughly pleasurable presentation of The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart's operatic jewel.

The opera, written in the late 1700s, follows the many trials and tribulations that Figaro and his fiancée Susanna must endure before exchanging vows. First, there's Figaro's master the Count, who lusts after Susanna and vows to possess her himself. Then, there's the housemaid Marcellina, who, furious that Figaro has yet to repay a loan, plots to put an end to the wedding by forcing Figaro to marry her instead.

Along the way,a lovestruck cross-dressing page, a drunken gardener and a gossipy music teacher make an appearance.

And though these shenanigans often lead to chuckles, Vancouver Opera sagely understands there are significant underlying themes that raise this production above the category of a mere comedy. Here's a look at what made the show sparkle:

Keeping it simple:

For a theatre company that has, over recent years, so actively strived to refresh and re-invent itself (Manga and animated video of each production have become staples on the VO website), it seemed odd at first that Vancouver Opera opted to present The Marriage of Figaro in such a traditional, bare-boned manner.

There are no colourful or extravagant sets (the same backdrop is essentially used the entire performance), no costume changes (the actors are clothed, with the exception of a cape flung over the shoulders here or there, in the same outfit throughout), and no attempt to update or modernize the piece (the sets and costumes all correspond to an 18th-century timeframe).

While a younger crowd accustomed to iPhones and BlackBerries might experience some initial difficulty keeping focused, the choice to keep the production simple is, overall, a wise one. As the piece unravels and the characters' motivations become more distinct, there is nothing to distract from what is, above all, a rich tale rife with sexuality, gender identity and class struggle.

So kudos to the Vancouver Opera for refraining from unnecessary glitz and for allowing the story itself to remain the onstage star.

The delicious diva:

While all of Marriage's performers are talented, the real star of this production is soprano Rhoslyn Jones, who plays the Countess. Hailing from Aldergrove, B.C., Jones has an unforgettably powerful voice that captivates from the very first moment she opens her mouth.

As the long-suffering Countess, her portrayal of a wife lamenting her husband's wandering eye is both genuine and touching, yet never cliché. Jones imparts to the Countess a grace and dignity that prevents her from descending into the mould of the stereotypical wronged woman, and `that allow her to become a relatable individual for a modern audience.

Jones is a joy to watch and reason alone to see the show.

The battle of the sexes:

While Marriage of Figaro is primarily known for its critical stance towards the aristocracy, Vancouver Opera's production also recognizes and underlines the tense gender struggles surging throughout the piece.

Whether it's the Count hypocritically questioning his wife's faithfulness, or Susanna joining forces with her female employer to publicly expose the Count's lies, power conflicts between the sexes crackle within every scene. And thanks to a sly wink and nudge to the audience here and there, the production reminds us that, as advanced as we like to believe we are in 2010, the sexes today still have a long way to go when it comes to understanding each other.

Finally, a totally unrelated side note:

Remember that legendary scene in The Shawshank Redemption when Tim Robbins' character blasts opera over the prison loud speakers? If not, you really should rent the movie when you have the chance, it's a powerful film.

Also, the snippet of melody played is from---you guessed it---The Marriage of Figaro, during a scene in which Susanna and the Countess plot to expose the Count's lecherous behaviour.

Just one example of how Mozart's revolutionary work has continued to seep into and inspire modern pop culture---and will undoubtedly continue to do so.

The Marriage of Figaro runs until May 4 at Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Tickets and show times are available at vancouveropera.ca.