The Marriage of Figaro, Hackney Empire

Whole cities have been built in the time it has taken to refurbish Hackney Empire. It has reopened to muted fanfare aware that a big gap in the outer brickwork doesn’t add to its aesthetic value. Inside, however, all is restored Victorian opulence and for two nights it welcomes English Touring Opera’s Mozart production.

The Marriage of Figaro is set in 18th century Seville. Transporting sweltering Andalusia to drizzly East London is tricky, and the set designers appear to have sub-contracted the work to Ikea. It kind of works. There are so many comings and goings throughout, that anything other than Swedish minimalism would be dangerous. What starts as a window, becomes a closet, reverts to a window and ultimately ends up in the garden. All it takes is a few turns and a slice of audience imagination.

The opera itself is a wry comedy, full of farcical set pieces, unravelling throughout one long summers day. A combination of misunderstandings, secret assignations and misplaced letters, Figaro is the 18th century’s greatest sit-com. What elevates it above the Terry & Junes’ of its time is the score. Mozart was the Brian Wilson of his era and Figaro is his most complex musical accomplishment, his Pet Sounds. We’re talking half a dozen of the greatest arias ever written, plus an overture that the average person must hear five times a day in mobile ringtones.

The Countess has the big showpieces. The aria lamenting her love grown cold could tear your heart apart. Figaro’s fiancee, Susanna, wore a permanent sultry look as she wove her way through the twists and turns of the plot. Her role is difficult, she flirts and then imagines herself a victim. She covers this range of emotions with a series of pouts, ranging from frisky to downtrodden. The depth of the stage affected those with more fragile vocal chords; songs floated into the air and disappeared into the orchestra pit. But this is a minor gripe, the venue is intimate enough to pick up the general drift even if odd words fall by the wayside.

The star of the show? Well, Susanna was thrilling and The Countess the most accomplished, but Hackney Empire itself was the showstopper. Appearances can be deceptive, a phrase neatly summarising the plot of Figaro. And the Empire too.