To say that Covent Garden’s latest revival of David McVicar’s production of Le Nozze di Figaro is well-choreographed sounds like an oddly limiting opening statement. In a quite profound way, though, it really sums up what was so spectacular about this performance: every note, every step, every gesture, every rhythmic or mood shift was totally spot on, and yet looked so breathtakingly effortless. It was a company effort of quite astonishing quality, and all elements and contributors to the company were at the top of their game.
Characterising something as a ‘company effort’ can sometimes be a convenient way of glossing over individual flaws by praising the ‘pulling together’: that is very far from what I mean in this case. Maria Bengtsson’s heart-meltingly creamy tone, reduced to a spider-silk filament for the second verse of Dove sono, contributed to a complex and moving portrayal of the Countess. The interplay between her and her husband (so captivatingly evident from Bengtsson even when no explicit words were being spoken between them) was heightened by the unnerving split-personality of Christopher Maltman’s Count. Maltman’s captured the divergence between what his character said publicly and what he really meant, and this became a dark backdrop to scenes in which the ‘threat’ was made explicit with quite disturbing violence. The contrast between his full vocal resources and a more sinuous shading elsewhere heightened the effect. I’ve long held the view that the second act of Figaro is one of the most disturbing presentations of two characters struggling with each other, and never more so than here.
The other principal couple – the Susanna of Lucy Crowe and Figaro of Luca Pisaroni – were equally well-matched and sung with voices that, again, could be listened to for hours and hours without tiring. Crowe’s bright and complex soprano gave fabulous vocal presence to a character that she ensured was the driving force of those early scenes. She was tremendously touching in Deh vieni, and she and Pisaroni played off each other beautifully. For his part, he spanned the frustrations and joys of the character without ever hinting (as some can do, so it occurred to me) that he is going to be as deceptive or downright violent in later married life as the Count is now.
Helene Schneidermann was a vigorous Marcellina, and possessed a combination of such fantastic histrionic presence and vocal surety that it was even more of a shame than usual that she was denied her Act 4 aria. Carlos Chausson brought a good comic sense – without grotesquerie – to Bartolo, such outlandishness being left to Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as the camp conception of Don Basilio, nonetheless perfectly integrating into the scenes of mayhem. Renata Pokupić was an excellent Cherubino, boyish gaucheness captured to perfection and her two arias delivered with clear and ever-attractive tone. Mary Bevan was Barbarina, more assured than seems common, and delivering a fulsome and touching Act 4 aria.
I have long liked this production, and I can’t think that it has had a significantly better outing at all. With David McVicar back to direct it, everything had a crispness and detail to it which just thrilled. The comic ensembles fizzed and bubbled, whilst the tender moments had their space, with no participant being less than totally aware of what their role was in a scene. Some of this brio was, in part, down to the spry, period-inflected conducting of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, who made the Royal Opera House orchestra sound like a different band. Stripped of their customary sumptuousness, and driven with vigorous (but never hectic) forward thrust, the orchestral colours were earthy without ever losing beauty. Gardiner was always ready to relax some generally brisk tempi to encompass the emotional demands of moments that deserved to be savoured: no detail of the score seemed left to chance. Dove sono, Porgi amor, Canzonetta sull’aria and – of course – the Countess’s all-crowning ‘Più docile io sono, e dico di sì‘ were ushered in and caressed with great emotional effect.
There were so many moments when I wanted to just close my eyes and let the sounds wash over me; and yet, there was so much complex drama to be seen that I had to stay transfixed. My favourite Mozart opera, probably by some margin, and in spectacular form: what could be a better tonic than that?