Le Nozze Di Figaro, Garsington Opera, Oxon

Figaro thrives in the open air
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The Independent Culture

For the second year running the director John Cox has given us a master class in staging Mozart. Setting apart, the means at Garsington are modest (compared, say, to Glyndebourne) but the spirit is infinitely willing, and, in terms of casting alone, this Figaro was as sharply observed and characterful as any I have seen. A little imagination and a lot of belief in the text goes a long way. I'll wager Cox had his cast speaking Da Ponte's libretto long before they sang a note of Mozart's music. At least that was the feeling.

The detail of his staging was constantly revealing. Household intrigue; servants caught spying through keyholes; Figaro giving Cherubino a close shave (in more ways than one) in preparation for his military commission; Antonio, the gardener, beavering away in the (real) garden long before Cherubino makes his leap from the Countess's bedroom window, flattening his carnations; the brush of Susanna's fingers on the Count's hand as she baits him with the pretext of retrieving her mistress's smelling salts; the Countess herself emerging from behind a statue of Venus for the final showdown. And all of it played out against a simple configuration of makeshift rooms by the designer, Robert Perdziola, that peel away for the al-fresco finale.

Casting, as I say, would visually pass muster in the most scrutinising close-up. Every last figure on that stage looked and behaved the part. In one or two cases there was more character than voice, but that matters so much less when the spirit is willing. What a pair were Doctor Bartolo (Lynton Black) and Marcellina (Jennifer Rhys-Davies), he bloated with hot air and indignation, she done up like Restoration pâtisserie.

Aled Hall's wheedling Basilio maintained a more or less constant state of agitation, squealing with delight at each potential scandal, while Doreen Curran's Cherubino looked as though it might be a while before he really did need a shave. Vocally, she should work on sustaining her tone in full voice: I realise that Cherubino cannot be too accomplished in the canzonetta, but even so, gauche charm is no substitute for a beautiful legato.

As for the couples on either side of the class divide, Julian Tovey's Count was striking more for physical than for vocal presence. His uneven production and rapid vibrato were apt to break up his most beguiling lines. D'Arcy Bleiker's Figaro again made more impact with personality than voice, which was strong in the middle but a bit short at the extremes of top and bottom.

Their women, though, were exemplary. Lucy Crowe's Susanna, a sparky performance in every respect, plainly inspired the local bird-life, while Sarah-Jane Davies was not at all fazed by the knowledge that as the Countess she must be the most accomplished singer on stage. She was. Both her arias were meaningful and heartfelt, distinguished by special phrasings and a shining top. In the scene where she dictates the letter to Susanna proposing the fateful assignation with the Count, both voices entwined to ravishing effect.

But where would they be without Mozart? Is Figaro the most perfect of operas? Undoubtedly, but it doesn't perform itself. A John Cox comes in very handy.

To 9 July (01865 361636); and at the Mostly Mozart festival, Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891) 15 July