Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro

The Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, London, 23rd September 2013 4 stars

figaroMozart's Le nozze di Figaro is exceedingly difficult to perform well. The opera is unlike any other: short and snappy arias, recitatives packed with information and witticisms, and music that at moments reaches right into the soul of the listener and, just as often, deep into the belly to provoke raucous laughter. It is not without its flaws but nevertheless it takes nothing short of brilliant musicians with more than just a knack for operatic acting to really pull off a spectacular performance. Besides a talented cast a successful performance of the work requires a clever conductor, one who performs Mozart with both intimacy and gusto. The Royal Opera has such outstanding ingredients for the fourth revival of David McVicar's charming yet still traditional production.

One might think that Tanya McCallin's sets would age with time but they are still evocative and elegant as ever, and complemented graciously by Paule Constable's lighting. McVicar set his production in the early nineteenth century (1830, we are told) and although this fact always bothered me slightly-after all, should it not have been set before the French Revolution to maximize the representation of class tensions?-with this stunningly talented cast McVicar's direction finally makes sense.

There were many subtle touches that revealed the intricacies of each character and reminded the audience that Figaro is just as much about sexual tension as it is class tension: the rekindling indiscretion of Marcellina and Bartolo in Act I; Cherubino's implied relationship with the Countess and semi-real one with Barbarina in Acts II and III; and above all the chemistry between both Figaro and the Count with Susanna. Only the slap from the Count in Act II was poor taste; whilst opera certainly needs touches like this to make it-ahem-more hard-hitting, this addition made his character too violent and seemingly beyond redemption, probably provoking the annoying laughter in the sumptuous Act IV finale.

Figaro was played by the charming Luca Pisaroni in a debut that was exceedingly memorable: his Figaro is scheming yet never Machiavellian; angry but never too serious. His voice easily slides between registers and carries a significant weight, whilst through each phrase the words are never lost. One might have wished for more variety from his dynamic range at times, however, especially in "Non più andrai."

Pisaroni was matched by the fiery yet sensitive portrayal of Susanna by Lucy Crowe, whose rendition of opera's lady-with-the-most-notes was vocally atmospheric yet still musically precise. "Via, resti servita" lacked a bit of that coy charm audiences expect from Susanna but Crowe made up for it in the Act II finale, with a clarion and impressive pianissimo through her lines.

Christopher Maltman's Count was one of the most aggressive and ferocious that I've seen. This was an interesting take on the role and one that admittedly worked rather well in most places, especially during "Hai già vinta," but the Count's rage and confusion needs to be kept in check, otherwise there is very little motivation for the Countess to pardon him at the end of the opera. The approach did play to Maltman's strengths, however: his voice is large, silky, and produces an exemplary legato, perfect for that final solo line as he begs for forgiveness.

The Countess of Maria Bengtsson was really something special: her voice is luminous, clear, and expressive-that's before she starts really working the magic. "Dove sono" was breathtaking: her subtle treatment of the words in each repetition of the phrase and stunning pianissimos reminded me that, perhaps, the golden age of opera singing is not quite finished yet.

As the horny yet troubled Cherubino, Renata Pokupić was suitably energized, singing with verve and notable creative phrasing, especially in Act I. As his immature other half, Mary Bevan sang a melodious Barbarina.

The orchestra was dynamically impressive and responded to the singers-mostly-with wit, grace, and, when it was needed, gusto. John Eliot Gardener kept everything under control nicely, but there were occasional moments where things got slightly out of hand, probably due to slight first night jitters of the singers. The Act IV finale could have been taken with slightly more finesse, however.

By Michael Migliore

Photos: Royal Opera House