Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Figaro comes to Downton Abbey

Opera Lyra Ottawa's The Marriage of Figaro takes an Edwardian spin

(from left to right) John Brancy, Sasha Djihanian, James Westman and Wallis Giunta star in The Marriage of Figaro. Credit: Andrew Alexander

Opera Lyra Ottawa’s production of The Marriage of Figaro, at the National Arts Centre from March 21 to 28, reimagines Mozart’s beloved opera in Edwardian times.

Tom Diamond, the opera’s stage director, discusses the Downton Abbey influence, the cast and his own wedding day in this edited interview.

Daily Xtra: How did you and conductor Kevin Mallon come up with the idea of setting The Marriage of Figaro in Edwardian times?

Tom Diamond: Kevin and I have done Figaro before, a more traditional production. When we were working on that I said, “If I had my druthers my preference would be to update it into a more contemporary world where we could really play the service industry.” Kevin said, “You mean like Downton Abbey?” And I said “Exactly.” Kevin said he would talk to Opera Lyra about the possibility of doing a Downton Abbey Figaro. They loved the idea and the rest is history.

What are the obstacles surrounding Figaro’s wedding day?

Susanna, who’s played by Sasha Djihanian, is getting married and is getting hit on by the head of the house, Count Almaviva, played by James Westman. He wants to have her and he wants to have her that very day. If he doesn’t get what he wants there’s a very strong chance he won’t let the wedding take place. His wife, Countess Almavia [Nathalie Paulin] finds out, so she gets involved and there’s a young page boy in the house who is kind of getting in the way of the count’s shenanigans. There are a million and one obstacles that are encountered on the way to the count’s primary servant, his manservant, Figaro, getting married. It’s bit like a Fado farce . . . but it’s a very sophisticated world like you’d see in a Noël Coward play or a Chekhov play. It’s a comedy of manners more so than a yuk yuk fest.

What can you tell us about the cast?

Nathalie Paulin, James Westman and I have not worked together for 20 years. At the beginning of our careers we did a production of a baroque opera for the Canadian Opera Company (COC). We all had an amazing experience and have not worked together since. To work with them again after all these years is fantastic. I’m the acting coach at the Canadian Opera Company and Wallis [Giunta] and Sasha Djihanian have gone through the COC program. It’s a bit like a love-in. I love this opera, I love this cast and I love Ottawa. I’m so happy to be here.

What is it about the music in The Marriage of Figaro that makes it loved by intellectual listeners but is also considered accessible?

Well, hey, it’s amazingly tuneful. The tunes in that opera are amongst the best tunes ever written for opera. Mozart was a genius and he created this world in a way that you don’t have to know a thing about music to love this opera. But if you know music, the level of brilliance that occurs not only with his vocal writing, but also his instrumentation just kind of boggles the mind.

All the big themes are at play in the score and on stage — love, lust, loneliness, revenge, greed. Is this what you love about opera, how big yet relatable it is?

Oh, totally. I think people often come to the opera because you see things on the stage that you don’t always feel comfortable expressing in your life. In opera, nothing is held back. To be in the presence of people who can sing at that level and express these emotions and kind of go through the vicissitudes of things that occur in these stories, it’s just an exciting medium. I was a theatre director with a classical musical background and once I found my way into the opera world, the spoken word theatre never satisfied me to the same level.

Are there any similarities between Figaro’s wedding day and yours?

I wouldn’t say there are similarities, but the fact that I’m married, allowed me to understand that a wedding day is an extraordinary day in a person’s life and I’ve seen productions of Figaro that forget that it’s someone’s wedding day because of all the shenanigans. When I got married, my husband and I were amongst the first couple of hundred [same-sex] couples that got married in Ontario. We thought the more people who got married, the less chance there was of [same-sex marriage] being repealed. We got married on our 20th anniversary. We both bawled our eyes out and it just reminded me what a momentous thing getting married is. When I direct Figaro, I keep reminding people that this is a wedding day. It’s not an ordinary day in people’s lives.