Opera is hard to do. The vast casts and sets, the massive demands on the singers, the addition of a full orchestra into the mix – no wonder it has been forced into the bracket of “elitist entertainment” - you have to be pretty bloody elite to attempt it. So it is wonderful when groups like Aria Alba, the Edinburgh-based community opera troupe, turn this equation on its head and perform amateur opera with all the enthusiasm and good humour that come from trying something very difficult for free.
This opera, arguably one of the greatest of all time, is also extremely fun and a perfect choice to bring opera back down to the ground-level. I was reminded that on top of being a genius, Mozart could also be very catchy, and the lightness of the music suited the minimal set and fresh-faced performers. Johnny Doyle's Figaro was young, handsome and had a voice made of pure baritoney beef. His delivery of the Italian libretto, including the recitative, positively bounced off his tongue. He was joined by the lovely 19 year-old Rosie Simpson as Susanna, whose as yet undeveloped voice at times was swallowed by the vast church space of Greyfriars, although her “Deh Vieni Non Tardar” was exquisitely sung. The standout, however, was Lucy Anderson's barnstorming Countess, with a voice that effortlessly glided through her two arias with power and grace.
In the version I saw (each performance has a different cast so as to include as many singers as possible) Cherubino was actually played not by a woman but by an age-and-gender-appropriate thirteen-year old boy, the precocious Marcus Swietlicki. He sung as a tenor, apparently suffering from an ill-timed breakage of the voice. Hearing his arias sung in an entirely unfamiliar register didn't irritate me so much as remind me of the ingenuity needed to get around the difficulties of amateur opera. That said, Roger Robertson's Count singing as a tenor grated a little – the character needs a good deal more menace and power.
While teething troubles were readily apparent, with a missed line here and there and a couple of awkward moments of staging, I couldn't really care less – director Nell Drew has brought opera out of the opera houses and into the public space, and made every attempt to make it understandable to all. The performance I saw included English narration to help us keep up with the Italian lyrics. Most importantly, the opera buffa spirit of silliness is retained, and moments like the Act 2 finale retained the hectic energy of the music on stage. And the Act 4 finale sent a shiver down my neck, so beautiful was the chorale. Opera is proved, once again, to be a universal experience, and this is just the way to make it accessible.