David McVicar’s production of Le nozze di Figaro, which premiered in 2006 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, moves the action from the 1780s to 1830s revolution-scarred Europe. It is a setting that perfectly captures the class tensions inherent in the plot, while in Tanya McCallin’s intelligently designed sets, with their sumptuous but plaster-cracked palace interiors are the perfect metaphor for the Count’s own wearying relationship with his wife.
In Leah Hausman’s current revival, the cast could hardly be better. At the heart of it lie Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Figaro and Aleksandra Kurzak as Susanna. Both played the roles here in 2008, and also appeared as Selim and Fiorilla in Il turco in Italia in 2010. They form a couple who know each other inside out, being highly aware of their opposite’s foibles, and always ready to stand up to, or conversely rescue, each other. D’Arcangelo has a dark, yet supple, bass-baritone voice that really comes to the fore in ‘Se vuol ballare, signor contino’ and ‘Aprite un po’ quegli occhi’. His comic gestures are strong, and as he ushers the household in to the thank the Count for having abolished the Droit du seigneur, he is clearly a man who revels in playing games.
Kurzak gives an equally spirited and polished performance, rebuking her fianc for seeing humour in the situation, pointedly dropping a linen basket at Marcellina’s feet, and almost pleading with the audience not to give her and the Countess away following Cherubino’s escape from the bedroom. She comes across as both a feisty and understanding figure, but is capable of revealing her own vulnerabilities to the full. Throughout the evening her singing is characterised by beautiful tone, sensitivity and expression, and her performance of ‘Deh, vieni, non tardar’ is particularly impressive.
Lucas Meachem, replacing a previously advertised Simon Keenlyside as the Count, also proves a very strong performer. In the first half, he comes across as one who is used to ruling the roost, happy to be affable when he doesn’t feel threatened, but quick to respond (even slapping the Countess at one point) when he does. In the second, one can really feel his growing anxiety as he senses that things are turning against him. His performance of ‘Vedr mentr’io sospiro’ reveals a strong, resonant and expansive tone, and if elsewhere a few lower notes feel underpowered, this is compensated for by his subtle, but highly effective, comic acting. Amidst the exaggerated merriment that follows Figaro’s discovery of his parents, Meachem’s astonished face is a picture, while his attempt to hush Barbarina is finely executed. Rachel Willis-Srensen, making her Royal Opera debut, provides an exquisitely sensitive portrayal of the Countess, and her performances of ‘Porgi, amor’ and ‘Dove sono’ are infinitely textured, with her vibrato bringing a rich variety of hues to the arias.
Anna Bonitatibus’ performance as Cherubino is also exceptionally fine, and ‘Voi che sapete’ is executed with a smoky sensitivity that reveals some beautiful nuances in the voice. Although in this portrayal the youth’s infatuations could still be described as innocent, he rather tests the definition of that word. When he thinks he is leaving, his final embrace to Susanna includes a cheeky slap on the bottom, while his farewell to the Countess seems just a little amorous! Carlo Lepore as Dr Bartolo and Ann Murray as Marcellina are in fine vocal and comic shape, Susana Gaspar is a delightfully sung Barbarina, and Bonaventura Bottone is brilliant as a foppish Don Basilio.
As we have rather come to expect, Antonio Pappano is nigh on perfect in the pit. This is a beautifully sumptuous rendering of the score that while balanced, detailed and frequently subtle, also understands the music’s own role in bringing out the comedy. Pappano also plays the harpsichord for the performance, which can only add weight to the theory that there is absolutely nothing that this brilliant conductor can’t do!
The Royal Opera House’s Le nozze di Figaro will be broadcast at 18.00 on 26 May on BBC Radio 3.
Volker Krafft, a participant in the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, plays the Harpsichord Continuo on 2 March.