The Marriage Of Figaro, Royal Opera House, London


Hear those hormones rage

An immense room, a tiny maid, mop and bucket at the ready - another day, another three acres of floor to scrub. It's going to be an eventful 24 hours in the Almaviva household, and, to the strains of the busiest overture in the repertoire, the preparations begin here and now. A fleet of servants ferries household supplies back and forth. There's enough food to feed the whole of Seville and already, one can sense, enough intrigue to keep it in gossip for years to come.

David McVicar's brilliantly observed staging doesn't waste a second in setting the scene. Before the overture has run its breathless course, we know exactly what kind of household we've dropped in on. Tanya McCallin's huge sets look lived-in - a little grubby, a little the worse for wear, despite the obsessive scrubbing. These walls have tales to tell and the juiciest of them is about to unfold.

The text and spirit of Mozart and Da Ponte's best opera has rarely been more thoroughly and painstakingly explored. Not a word, not a motivation has been taken for granted. No rattling aimlessly through recitatives impatient for the next big number. Both the Countess's arias, for instance, can and do often feel marooned in glorious isolation - marvellous set-pieces far removed from the ebb and flow of the action. But here they emerged like painful truths from the surrounding fabric.

Dorothea Roschmann's extraordinarily intense account of "Dove sono" was genuinely a moment of self-revelation. The deployment of aching embellishments in the da capo was for once neither cosmetic, nor musicological, but entirely dramatic. Earlier in the same scene we witnessed the Count (the superb Gerald Finley on blistering form) - "unfaithful on principle", as the Countess so perceptively puts it - angrily taking stock of his situation in plain view of all the characters on which his slowly unravelling plot is so dependent. The point being that he has little or no control over the events unfolding around him. The super-naturalism of every action and interaction here speaks volumes for detailed preparation. It's good to see such finely tuned ensemble work in a major international house. For once, it's more than evident where all the rehearsal time has gone.

If I had any criticism of the staging, it would be that the scale of it sometimes threatens to overwhelm the intimacy of this most "domestic" of dramas. McVicar and his designer are so at pains to convey the cultural divide that the grandiosity, the exaggerated gauntness of the sets becomes almost cosmic. But the cast are in the main so strong as not to be undermined. At the centre of things Erwin Schrott's charismatic Figaro is as cocky, confident and showy with his big notes as you could wish. But he must beware of carrying his vividly laddish way with the recitatives too far into the sung text. I wanted to hear a little less speech-song and a little more pure singing.

Miah Persson's deliciously pretty Susanna certainly provided that. Her final-act romance, ravishingly sung, truly revealed the tender-hearted young woman beneath the feisty exterior. And, boy, is she feisty. She slams the door on Figaro seconds into the first scene of the opera and you know that it's only a matter of time before she duffs up Marcellina. That's why Figaro loves her so much. She fights for what she wants. As for the randy Cherubino, Rinat Shaham (such a memorable Carmen at Glyndebourne a couple of seasons back) has him panting at the bit from her breathless "Non so piu" onwards. Again, a wonderfully complete performance. You can almost hear the hormones raging.

And speaking of raging hormones, Antonio Pappano is unstinting with Mozart's. With the pit raised for optimum immediacy, his big-boned and romantic account of the score may not always ring true in terms of style, but it does remind us in this big-birthday year that of all the gifts Mozart gave us, this one may be most precious.

To 25 February (020-7304 4000)

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