The reputation of Le nozze di Figaro as ‘the perfect opera' has always struck me as open to question. Musically it is a miracle, to be sure, but dramatically its slender plot suffers from a protractedness that borders on self-indulgence. With all the essential action done and dusted by the end of Act Three, only a special performance of Mozart and da Ponte's first collaboration can prevent the final Act from feeling like a lame sequel. Happily, thanks to the lithe, meticulous musical direction of Sir Antonio Pappano, this revival of David McVicar's vivacious 2006 production is one such occasion.
Sexily updated to the 1830s (hence no periwigs), McVicar and designer Tanya McCallin's extravagantly-conceived Almaviva household bustles and buzzes to the rhythm of Mozart's sunniest score. Some people, I know, take issue with the hyper-choreographed Overture; I cannot fathom why, though, because music and stage were never more as one than in movement director (and revival overseer) Leah Hausman's micro-managed comings and goings. New felicities reveal themselves at every new viewing of this production, for instance the way Figaro addresses the opening lines of ‘Non più andrai' – "No more will you go disturbing the sleep of beauties" – not to Cherubino as written but to the discomfited Count himself.
Ildebrando D'Arcangelo's rich-voiced Figaro was gruff, buff and brooding; his Susanna, Aleksandra Kurzak, witty and vocally melting. Together their sweetly-matched partnership dominated the opening performance. Further up the social scale the tensions in the Almaviva marriage were echoed by imperfections in the otherwise strong musical performances of Lucas Meachem (a late stand-in for the indisposed Simon Keenlyside) and Rachel Willis-Sørensen (a rather earlier replacement for Kate Royal). Meachem, despite a pleasant timbre, gave a pallid interpretation of the role, with practically no dramatic engagement that I could discern, while Willis-Sørensen sounded nervous – vocally tight and metallic – during her first aria, ‘Porgi amor'. Her phrasing was immaculate, however, as was her singing of recitatives, and by the time she reached her sublime third-act duet with Kurzak, ‘Sull'aria', she had relaxed into the role.
Anna Bonitatibus was irresistible as a hyper-hormonal Cherubino, singing with the airy top register of a proper treble while her centre of gravity lurched hither and yon, whereas in the trio of buffo roles Carlo Lepore, Ann Murray and Bonaventura Bottone sang better and mugged less than some of their predecessors in this production. The farcical recognition scene in Act Three sparkled with comic life. A word of praise, too, for the winning Barbarina of a dynamic Jette Parker Young Artist, the Portugese Susana Gaspar.
This is Pappano's Figaro, though. His attention to orchestral detail is quite magical and his deft harpsichord flourishes raise continuo-playing to an art form. I'll go so far as to say that it is the best-conducted account of this opera I have yet heard. With Bafta waiting in the wings to hold its annual awards junket at this address, it's the Royal Opera's Music Director who gets my vote.