Revolution is in the air on Bow Street, as the Royal Opera pulls another corker of a revival out of the bag with David McVicar's exemplary staging of Mozart's sublime comedy, Le nozze di Figaro (Figaro's Wedding), judiciously updated to 1830. These performances mark the staging's fourth revival since it was new seven years ago, and out of the three revivals I have seen in the interim, this is without doubt one of the strongest.
McVicar was on hand to supervise the revival and having such a sure hand on the tiller ensures that the entire mise-en-scene has been reworked anew. With a young, superbly-balanced new cast to work with, the action has been tightened, so that the interaction between the characters now possesses a razor-sharp brilliance that not only illuminates this Figaro but sheds new light on it as well.
The central relationship here is that of master and servant. As Figaro, Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni was making his belated company debut, and what a debut it was! Tall, striking and with a richly coloured voice to match, he not only sang impeccably but gave a performance that at times threatened to descend into violence when pitted against Christopher Maltman's proud, haughty, libidinous Count. Maltman presents the Count as a bully and a thug who is not only prone to lashing out at his wife, the Countess, but treats everyone with the same disdain and total lack of respect. Vocally there is plenty of mettle in his voice, and on occasion he hardens the tone, but always in deference to the character he's playing. Both Pisaroni and Maltman give career-defining performances in these roles and for me stole the vocal honours of the evening.
But vocal standards were exceptionally high right across the board, from the brilliantly-etched cameos of Helene Schneiderman (Marcellina), Carlos Chausson (Bartolo) and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (Don Basilio) to some really stylish assumptions from the leading ladies. Although she took a while to find her form following a rather bland ‘Porgi Amor', by the end of the evening Maria Bengtsson had won all hearts with her supremely touching Countess – her rendition of ‘Dove sono' rightly brought the house down, sung as it was in a gloriously hushed pianissimo, on barely a thread of a tone.
British soprano Lucy Crowe was her equal as Susanna. This role is a deceptively ‘big sing', yet she never tired, treating us to a bewitching account of ‘Deh vieni' in the last act. Indeed throughout, whether in partnership with Figaro or the Count, her acting and singing were faultless.
Renata Pokupic was a gangly, priapic Cherubino but to me didn't quite have the size of the House in her grasp, so sometimes got lost, but that's a minor quibble given the overall excellence of this ensemble cast.
Without a conductor who has an innate understanding of the composer and the score, the benefits of having such a stellar line up of singers might have been lost, but I can think of few conductors who know this opera better than John Eliot Gardiner. The Overture crackled with energy, and period practices were thankfully to the fore – tempi were brisk, the strings played with minimal vibrato and we had crooked horns and valveless trumpets – the results were breathtaking, and it was heartening to see and hear the Royal Opera House Orchestra playing like a period band. A great evening!