The most striking aspect of David McVicar’s production of Le nozze di Figaro, staged in 2006 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, is not its updating of the setting from the 1780s to 1830s revolution-scarred Europe, effective though that is. Rather it is its ability to understand the precise spirit of the farce that lies at the heart of the opera. So revered is Mozart’s music, and so obviously comical is the scenario, that it becomes easy to forget just how dramatically intelligent the work actually is.
Through strong characterisation and thoughtful staging, McVicar succeeds in delineating each twist and turn in the plot so that the resulting ‘crises’ become funnier because we can appreciate every single step that has contributed towards their arising. In Tanya McCallin’s intelligently designed sets, the sumptuous but plaster-cracked palace interiors are the perfect metaphor for the Count’s own wearying relationship with his wife, but it is the variation to be found within these realistic forms that is most notable. Thanks to Paule Constable’s excellent lighting designs, the pale yellow hues that flood through the vast windows really do feel like sunlight. Servants and maids scuttle around the hall during the Overture, but the moment that we witness the dirty hovel that is Figaro and Susanna’s new bedroom we are told much about the Count’s own character. The space is also highly versatile with the transition from the wedding celebrations in Act III to the outdoor setting of Act IV proving just as smooth and effective as the alteration in music.
McVicar’s strong set-up is only half of the story, however, as the production still depends upon the panache and comic timing of its cast to bring it to life. Fortunately, throughout its history it has been blessed with strong performers. Its third revival in 2012 witnessed an exceptionally good line-up, headed by Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Figaro and Aleksandra Kurzak as Susanna, but the current group would certainly be their equal. Making a tremendous Royal Opera debut, Luca Pisaroni as Figaro possesses a strong yet supple bass-baritone voice and a good sense of dramatic gesture, thus ensuring that ‘Se vuol ballare, signor contino’ and ‘Aprite un po’ quegli occhi’ come across paticularly well. Pisaroni also brings out the contrast between the way in which Figaro can revel in his outwitting of the Count, but feel genuinely mortified at any thought that Susanna herself might be unfaithful.
Lucy Crowe, making her Royal Opera role debut, is a perfect Susanna. With a clean, elegant vocal line and subtle gestures, her performance of ‘Deh, vieni, non tardar’ is particularly stirring. With his brilliantly effective baritone voice, Christopher Maltman is an excellent Count, proving more sinister than comic in Acts I and II (he actually strikes the Countess at one point), and then more fearful than obviously raging in ‘Vedrò mentr’io sospiro’.
Maria Bengtsson provides an exquisite portrayal of the Countess, and her performances of ‘Porgi, amor’ and ‘Dove sono’ reveal a remarkable degree of sensitivity as lines are delivered with a beautifully quiet tenderness. Renata Pokupić gives a spirited performance as Cherubino, although there is just as much detail and subtlety in her gestures than her moving voice. Helene Schneiderman and Carlos Chausson clearly have fun as Marcellina and Dr Bartolo, providing a master class in comic timing as they discover they are Figaro’s parents, while Mary Bevan and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt are similarly delightful as Barbarina and the foppish Don Basilio.
The final element that makes the performance such a success is Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s conducting. While he is a great interpreter of opera, the added ingredient here is surely his peerless understanding of Bach and, amongst other things, the Baroque repertoire. In order to understand exactly the sound that Mozart envisaged, it may be less useful to study the 200 years of opera that followed him (which he would never have heard) than the preceding 200 years of music in which he would have been well versed. It may be this knowledge that provides the secret to the dance-like elegance, not to mention exceptional balance in sound, that Gardiner succeeds in bringing to the evening. No wonder he has just been voted ‘Outstanding Musician 2013’ in the Critics’ Circle third annual Music Awards.