Much has been made of director David McVicar's decision to update Le nozze di Figaro by half a century, apparently linking the humiliation of Count Almaviva to the fall of the Bourbons in 1830. In performance, though, the impact of this idea is merely to give us the best of both period worlds where elaborate periwigs give way to breeches and frock coats that reek of cool.
The coolest of them all is Figaro himself, as portrayed by the Uruguayan bass-baritone Erwin Schrott in a return to the role he initiated at the production's inception. Schrott too has been updated, the dimpled lad of 2006 banished in favour of a crop-haired, buffed-up hunk, an adjustment that allows servant and master (Mariusz Kwiecien is the brooding Count) to stalk the château on equal terms.
If Schrott and Kwiecien are the two linchpins of this revival, vocally rich and physically dominant, there are troubles among the ladies that extend beyond the merely amorous. As the Countess, Annette Dasch makes heavy weather of her Covent Garden début and struggles particularly with her breathing in the sustained legato of Dove sono. Marie McLaughlin's wittily characterised Marcellina is beset by a prominent vocal beat that compromises the great Act Three sextet, while the Lithuanian mezzo Jurgita Adamonyté, though touching and funny, has issues with intonation as the hormonal Cherubino.
The leading lights of the distaff side are Eri Nakumura, honey-voiced and vulnerable as Susanna, and the luminous Barbarina of Amanda Forsythe. Together these two sopranos offer balm to the ear through the tenderness and grace they bring to McVicar's re-thought staging of Act Four.
Elsewhere, Robert Lloyd contributes yet another fine Covent Garden cameo as crusty old Doctor Bartolo, while Peter Hoare makes a squalidly epicene Don Basilio: a man you'd never in a million years trust with the education, musical or otherwise, of any children.
The presence of Sir Colin Davis in the pit he once called home ensures a rock-solid orchestral foundation for all the vocal performances. The elegant momentum of Davis's phrasing is a thing of beauty in itself as well as a propeller for the entire evening, and he draws lustrous playing from the strings (though not always, it must be said, from the woodwind). I have never heard the extended ostinato passage late in Act Two played more beautifully or with greater impetus than here.
Tanya McCallin's set designs are splendidly evocative of a French château – afficionados of coups de théâtre will swoon at the sweet transition she achieves between Acts One and Two – and the visual impact is intensified by the lighting of Paule Constable who projects her customary brilliance (in every sense of the word) across towering surfaces and through high-paned windows.
This Figaro's greatest asset, though, is the production itself. In keeping with Mozart's own approach to Beaumarchais, the opera's inherent farce is played with sincerity and restraint. The director resists any temptation to slap on a gag; from the outset, with the superbly choreographed dumbshow that accompanies the overture, all the wit (and there's plenty of it) arises naturally from the characters' behaviour. Thanks to McVicar, the Royal Opera is able to boast that rare phenomenon, a staging of Le nozze di Figaro that responds faithfully to every nuance and undulation in Mozart's greatest score.
- Mark Valencia