And so we come to the last opera of the "Da Ponte cycle", which is actually the first. Figaro is the most perfect Mozart opera in my opinion, which is to say the most perfect opera of all. Every number is not just superbly beautiful as in Cosi and Don Giovanni, but also memorable, dramatically apt, emotionally revealing - the musical and dramatic means are never at odds. The characters are beautifully drawn, likeable, three dimensional, alive with real feelings always exquisitely revealed in the vocal line even when it might be lacking in the text, the action is subtle, nuanced, multi layered, and the orchestra teems with a soft hued delicacy and felicitous brilliance more refined than anything he achieved before or after.*
Just as he did with Meistersinger, McVicar updates the action to the Regency era. The political undertones of the opera (more explicit in the original Beaumarchais play), the theme of master and servant and class frictions, were again very pertinent during this era of course, so the updating makes perfect sense in that way. McVicar doesn't force the point though, and he introduces nothing major that is not in Da Ponte's libretto, nor does he leave anything out: mainly this is a way to do something new visually with the piece and avoid the crinolines and fussy 18th century decor which can be so distracting when badly done.
And it's wonderful. The beautifully capacious sets, all high windows and creme panelling, together with the always sensitive lighting of Paule Constable gives the whole thing a soft, fresh aired luminosity and allows the cast to breath in the space. Tanya McCallin designed both the sets and costumes which gave the piece an aesthetic unity. Act changes are all deftly and smoothly handled with huge moving panels and sections which never seem cheap or clunky. Everything, in other words, is working in perfect accord.
The cast work wonderfully together too, revival direction by Leah Hausman keeping things feeling spontaneous. The casting is excellent, not just vocally but in terms of the dramatic temperament and even the physical stature of each singer as well. Rachel Willis Sorensen makes a gorgeous Countess, vocally polished, controlled and expressive, actually pretty astonishing considering she is just 28 years old. She might be someone very special indeed. She really plays the part beautifully too: poised, restrained in her gestures and with a serene countenance entirely befitting her role. She is also very tall, towering statuesquely over Figaro, Susanna and the rest of the cast so looks great on stage. Lucas Meachem is a superb Count (so much so that one didn't regret Keenlyside's recent withdrawal from the part) displaying the requisite suave assurance and composure of the character, with vocal acting that was sophisticated and commanding. I liked him very much much last summer as Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne but here he was even stronger, and the role seemed to fit better.
Ildebrando D'Arcangelo has a wonderfully rich bass-baritone voice which is just a pleasure to hear. There's a tendency only to boom and the voice isn't well supported when he sings quietly, but it's such a lovely voice, and he's a charmingly affable and sexually appealing enough Figaro that this doesn't matter much at all. The chemistry with Aleksandra Kurzak as Susanna was palpable, and though Kurzak has a tendency to overact, she was very good here I thought, with less of the mugging I've seen her do in the past. Vocally too she seemed very at ease, producing some lovely things, even if not quite as special as her colleagues. The lesser parts were brilliantly and characterfully taken by Ann Murray (as Marcellina), Carlo Lepore (a slightly camp Bartolo) and Jeremy White (Antonio) - luxury casting all. With such talent on offer it seemed a shame that their arias should be cut in Act IV. Susana Gaspar made a minute Barbarina, reminding us that she is meant to be twelve years old (as Anna Gottlieb, the first singer of this role was in 1786) making it all the seemier that the Count might have been after her. The voice is sweet and apt for the role though the part never seems big enough to really be able to judge the quality of a singer. The only real disappointment in the cast was Anna Bonitatibus as a rather wispy and breathy Cherubino, finely acted though it was.
What McVicar understands so well about this opera is not just the dramatic pacing and the relationships that need to be carefully sculpted, but also the spiritual difference between the different characters - the Count and Countess' travails really do contain something more painful and earnest, their reconciliation far more meant and heartfelt because more was at risk - things that the servants simply do not fully fathom. Thus Mozart adds a considerable amount of ambiguity to this apparent class satire and critique of the upper classes. McVicar really makes sure every detail of every character is right, and while there are only a few original touches, it's just satisfying for being so meticulous. The finale of Act II is one of the very greatest things that Mozart ever wrote and here it was wonderfully done - not just musically, but dramatically every gesture spoke and was reflected in the text and especially the music - that McVicar listens to the music so intently for clues is one of his greatest strengths.
Pappano's conducting of this score is absolutely superb, really truly beautiful. The joy he gets from it is so clearly communicated to his musicians who respond in kind. The pacing and instrumental balance was always meticulously well planned and executed: the difference between this sort of playing and the Cosi I saw two weeks before is amazing, and it is worlds apart from the Don Giovanni I witnessed. The ROH orchestra can and will play superbly for conductors they really like!
The best operatic experience I've had in a long while. It's almost sold out, so you might have to queue on the day for a ticket, but few productions this season have been as good as this one.
*(sorry, I can't put it better than I did before!)