OPERA / Marriage on the rocks: Stephen Johnson on the current revival of Le nozze di Figaro at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The cast list looked like a recipe for success. As Figaro we had Bryn Terfel, who seems to be incapable of turning in a dull performance at the moment. The tone was as robust and richly colourful, the musicianship as sensitive, and the characterisation as lively as one could have hoped. His Susanna was Sylvia McNair, fresh from her Vienna Opera triumph in this role. Like Terfel, she became the character in every dimension, the musical strength and subtlety deepening as the performance progressed.

Jeffrey Black's Count Almaviva was another fine performance, vocally secure and appealing, and unusually sexy. His Almaviva was volatile, dangerous, charming and even capable of suffering from the strength of his urges. Against him was Christine Brewer's Countess, a little tense and inclined to sharp intonation in her first aria, 'Porgi amor', but gaining security and opening out in time for the Act 3 hit number, 'Dove sono'. Alongside these went Della Jones's delightful Marcellina, beautifully sung, with a touch of Angela Lansbury in her appearance and acting, and a very winning Cherubino, Monica Bacelli, a pleasure to watch and - especially in the set piece 'Voi che sapete' - to hear.

So why wasn't it more compelling? And why were there so few laughs? A performance like this is a good reminder of how much depends on pacing. The conductor Hartmut Haenchen was never particularly slow in arias and ensembles, but recitatives dragged, the interpolated Pinter-pauses sapping tension still further. When the recitatives don't sparkle, then the arias emerge like unthreaded pearls, lacking a sense of larger significance.

Ensembles, too, often disappointed. One could see, and hear, the singers working hard, and yet technical togetherness could be surprisingly sloppy. Not only did voices and orchestra sometimes disagree as to the beat, there were moments of poor cohesion in the orchestra itself. For the bassoons and strings to go their separate ways at one point in the overture was bad enough; for them to repeat the lapse at the same point in the recapitulation was startling. And from where I was sitting, the orchestral sound tended to dominate, in the first two acts at least, obscuring some of the low-lying soprano and mezzo lines.

Johannes Schaaf's staging left a mixed impression. The background scenes, especially the gorgeously painted ceilings, were striking, the foreground walls of Figaro's apartment rather less so - a metaphor? If so, it didn't really tell. Most of the movement was good in itself, and yet it and the music sometimes seemed to exist on two different levels. The extra charge that comes when musical and human gestures enrich one another was also rare. And while the Countess waking up with a hangover in the introduction to 'Porgi amor' was funny enough, for a moment at least, what exactly did it have to do with Mozart's poignant woodwind phrases?

It was only in Act 4 that everything at last came together: set, action, voices, orchestra - and Mozart's message. But it still didn't feel quite like the climax of a good evening's entertainment - more a late compensation.

In rep at the Royal Opera, WC2 (071-240 1911) to 25 May

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