Music: Figaro gets a divorce, Cherubino grows fat

As the central character in not just one but two great operas, Figaro romps through Rossini’s Barber of Seville (where he gets a bride for Count Almaviva) and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (where he gets a bride for himself) with adventures that are carved in the hearts of theatregoers. But what happens next in the story is less familiar, even though its literary creator, Beaumarchais, set everything down in a third instalment called The Guilty Mother.

Various composers have made operas out of The Guilty Mother through the centuries, without success: Mozart and Rossini are hard acts to follow. But last week Welsh National Opera in Cardiff gave the world premiere of a sassy new attempt, with music by Elena Langer and a libretto by WNO’s artistic director David Pountney, who also staged the show.

Its title, Figaro gets a Divorce, gives you a rough idea of what happens, although there’s more to it than that – based loosely on Beaumarchais but with new ideas as well. In essence, the Almaviva household is on the run after a revolution. The Count has had a daughter with Barbarina, the Countess a son with Cherubino – who has opened a nightclub where Susanna (now separated from Figaro) is a cabaret singer. Figaro, meanwhile, has had no success with barbering (people aren’t too bothered about their hair during a revolution) and shoots Cherubino dead. Then everybody ends up back at Almaviva’s castle, which is now a lunatic asylum and the setting for a questionable reconciliation not unlike the one that closes Mozart’s Marriage.

A surreal farce? Yes, up to a point – the best joke being that Cherubino’s formative experience with frocks in Countess Almaviva’s closet have now left him with a penchant for cross-dressing. But the laughs are tempered by a heartfelt tenderness that links the piece to Mozart in a manner that the music quite deliberately doesn’t.

Langer uses a Mozartian orchestra (with extra things such as an accordion for added pungency) but has no Mozart quotations or parodies of 18th-century style except for one brief moment at the end. If anything, the bright, abrasive lyricism of the score suggests Prokofiev (an echo of Ms Langer’s background: British-based, she was brought up in Russia) with a touch of Britten.

It’s not cutting-edge contemporary, but neither is it a nostalgia exercise. It has vitality, immediacy, brilliance. And unlike most new commissions for the opera stage, it works – with help from an outstanding cast who enter into the spirit of the piece with credibility and conviction. Especially Andrew Watts, whose countertenor portrayal of a Cherubino grown fat, sleazy and lascivious is an unnerving sermon on how badly charm can age.