Our connection with Mozart reaches back a long way — right back to our company's birth. But what is it that's so enduring about his work and, in particular, The Marriage of Figaro?
We've gone digging through the Opera Australia archives to uncover photos and stories of our many productions of opera's original upstairs, downstairs comedy.
The attention of the world was on Australia in 1956, as the Melbourne Olympics brought in athletes and visitors from all corners of the globe. But at the same time, another significant cultural event was happening: the company now known as Opera Australia was born.
The Australian Elizabethan Trust gathered a company of opera singers to celebrate the bicentenary of Mozart’s birth, touring four of his operas to Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth. Among those operas was The Marriage of Figaro, directed by British opera wiz Dennis Arundell and designed by Australian painter Kenneth Rowell. The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust’s musical director Joseph Post conducted an Australian cast on the tour, including John Cameron, Valda Bagnall, Betty Benfield, John Shaw, Neil Warren-Smith, Wilma Whitney, Nita Maugham, Raymond McDonald, Keith Neilson, Ereach Riley and Janne Ross.
The Marriage of Figaro was the first opera our company ever performed, with a gala opening performance at the Theatre Royal, Adelaide on 21 July 1956.
In 1963, we performed a new production of The Marriage of Figaro by Viennese director Stephan Beinl, who had a long association with the company, up until his death in 1970. The production was designed by Kenneth Rowell, who was behind our 1956 production.
Viennese conductor Wilhelm Loibner was the season’s musical director, with Ronald Maconaghie in the title role and Cynthia Johnston as Susanna. Both singers had long careers, and performed with us through the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
British director John Copley created many of our most celebrated (and most frequently revived) productions throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. He was no stranger to Figaro, having already directed the opera multiple times, and collaborated with designers Henry Bardon and Michael Stennett to create a production that looked like an authentic snapshot of Vienna at the end of the 18th century.
Ronald Maconaghie returned to the role of Figaro, opposite Glenys Fowles as Susanna. They were joined by Rosemary Gordon, John Pringle, Jennifer Bermingham and Janice Taylor. Rosina Raisbeck took on the comedic role of Marcellina. The production was conducted by Walter Stiasny and received glowing reviews. It was considered a major step forward for the company, just two years before our new Sydney home, the Sydney Opera House, opened. The staging stayed in our repertoire for almost three decades.
British director Tim Albery, known for his forward-thinking operatic productions, was invited to Australia to create a new Figaro in 1992. Working with designer Anthony McDonald, Albery took a more serious-minded approach to the material than our previous productions, doing away with many of the gags.
Stephen Bennett starred as Figaro, with Ghillian Sullivan as Susanna, Peter Coleman-Wright as Count Almaviva, Amanda Thane as Coutness and Miriam Gormley as Cherubino.
The production was originally performed in Italian, but when Albery revisited the staging in 1995, an English translation was performed. The audience response was significantly stronger for the revised version.
Figaro is the sort of opera that stands up to both straight-out comedic productions and moodier interpretations. Australian director Neil Armfield’s 2002 production managed to find the perfect medium between the two, with Dale Ferguson’s eclectic but restrained design.
Simone Young conducted the production’s premiere, with Douglas McNicol as Figaro, Natalie Jones as Susanna, Jeffrey Black as Count Almaviva, Lisa Harper-Brown as Countess, and Tiffany Speight as Cherubino. Armfield won the Helpmann Award for Best Director of an Opera, and the 2011 revival was filmed for DVD and Blu-ray release, with Teddy Tahu-Rhodes, Taryn Fiebig, Peter Coleman-Wright and Rachelle Durkin.
We’ve had few productions in our repertoire as divisive as Benedict Andrews’ version of The Marriage of Figaro. The Australian director brought his provocative lens to the opera, setting it in a modern day gated community. Ralph Myers (who was Artistic Director of Belvoir at the time) created a stark white set, offset by Alice Babidge’s modern and colourful costumes.
The production, conducted by Australian Simon Hewett, received glowing reviews, but divided audiences right down the centre. The opening night at the Sydney Opera House received some rapturous applause, but there were a few boos (incredibly rare in Australian opera houses!) ringing through the theatre.
Joshua Bloom played Figaro, with Taryn Fiebig as Susanna, Michael Lewis as Count Almavia and Russian soprano Elvira Fatykhova as Countess.
Scottish director David McVicar had already created a celebrated Figaro for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden when he directed the opera for us in 2015. This production features extraordinary, authentic 17th-century designs by Jenny Tiramani, bringing Mozart’s courtly world to life perfectly.
The production premiered in Sydney under conductor Guillaume Tourniaire. It first starred Paolo Bordogna as Figaro, with Taryn Fiebig as Susanna. The production has received rave reviews each time it’s been performed in Melbourne and Sydney, with critics praising McVicar’s detailed dissection of the text and the world built on stage by Tiramani.