Le nozze de Figaro, Royal Opera House, London

Mozart, but with no marzipan in sight
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The Independent Culture

David McVicar's production of Le nozze di Figaro transposes Mozart's opera to 1830s France. The revolution anticipated by Beaumarchais has happened, and the slow unravelling of an order that will be lost within a century has started. Still run by an army of servants, Count Almaviva's household shows signs of decay. The plaster is cracked, the windows dirty, and a speculative design of an industrial machine - perhaps one the Count will invest in on his arrival as ambassador to London - can be seen in the study.

Aside from the elegiac late-summer beauty of Paule Constable's lighting and Tanya McCallin's set, the most striking aspect of this Figaro is its seriousness. But for a brief reference to Charlie Chaplin in "Se vuol ballare" and the dreamlike Jarmanesque scene change for the Act III finale, this is not a playful production. McVicar's protagonists are Romantics who feel acutely the nuances of rejection. The Count (Gerald Finley) and Countess (Dorothea Röschmann) are a married couple who, as George Eliot put it, "make sad mistakes about their symptoms". In a vastly different way to that envisaged by Mozart or Da Ponte, this is revolutionary.

Space forbids a catalogue of the sidelong glances, the bitten ribbons, and the subtle movements of the non-singing actors. (I half-wondered whether the oldest maid was Barbarina remembering her youth.) McVicar is good at details. What makes the production outstanding, however, is the way in which he and Antonio Pappano have identified the points at which the opera changes focus - the scene change above, and that between Acts I and II - and shaped the drama around them. With Finley's suave, complex Count, and Röschmann's impassioned Countess as the tragic heart of the opera - their Act III arias are devastatingly good - the ease between Figaro (Erwin Schrott) and Susanna (Miah Persson) shows what they have lost, while that between Marcellina (Graciela Araya) and Bartolo (Jonathan Veira) shows what can be recaptured.

Already hailed as the Brando of opera, Schrott's closest cinematic likeness is in fact the young Mel Gibson. It's not just the Ultrabrite teeth. It's the ants-in-his-pants twitchiness of an actor desperate to deliver - or ad lib - his next line. This itching-powder urgency is engaging in the recitatives but unwieldy in Figaro's arias. When not muttering, his is a hefty lug of a voice - the Lenny to Finley's George - and he has difficulty controlling it. Schrott aside, the only thistles in this rose garden are the chorus, who have little to do but did it badly, and Araya's Marcellina: a terrific comic characterisation undermined by choleric coloratura. Rinat Shaham's delicate Cherubino and Ana James's ditsy Barbarina are scampering Goya urchins, Persson's sharp-witted Susanna sweet and spicy. Philip Langridge's louchely dandyfied Basilio amuses, while Veira again does the best eye-rolling in the business. The ensembles, and too many of the arias to list, are impeccably phrased.

If Pappano's harpsichord continuo is too secco for comfort - I enjoyed the "Rule Britannia" quotation - the orchestral playing is wonderful: nippy, witty, languid in the right places, and totally engaged with the rhythm of the production. The trumpeters and horn players played sans valves, and their sunlit sound and pristine articulation of the flourishes in "Non piu andrai" were peerless. This is a thoroughly thought-out Figaro: strong, clear, sincere, and worth its weight in cut-price anniversary compilations and chocolate-coated marzipan balls.

To 25 Feb, 020 7304 4000; then 19 June to 9 July

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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