Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro

Gerald Finley, Miah Persson, Erwin Schrott, ROH/Antonio Pappano (Opus Arte OA 0990 D)

11 March 2008 4.5 stars

Le nozze di Figaro from Covent Garden ROH: DVD ReviewCapturing one of my favourite opera productions of recent years, this new DVD of David McVicar's take on the first of the Mozart-Da Ponte operas is in some ways the ultimate Le nozze di Figaro.

Two or three of the singers involved aren't to my taste, but otherwise this performance seems to get to the heart of arguably Mozart's greatest opera more successfully than almost any other production of the composer's stage works I've seen in the last two or three years. As day turns to night and the characters leave the house to resolve their disputes in Tanya McCallin's verdant garden set, the performance takes on a warm glow; it's just so emotional, so involving, so poignant.

And I just can't remember thinking that an opera production was quite this beautiful before or since this one. For once, the Almavivas' villa is actually as grand as their social status requires: the walls, the veranda, the furniture is all redolent of a perhaps slightly faded grandeur suitable to the aristocracy. McVicar sets the piece in a French chateau in 1830, which may upset those who see it as being essentially rooted in the pre-French Revolution period. Yet for me, the director rightly focuses on the fact that above all else, this opera is about sex, and particularly an emerging sexual freedom amongst the serving classes. One of a million reasons why this production comes across so well on DVD is that you can see how good the chemistry is between the principles. The young, intense passion of Figaro and Susanna; the lust of the Count for Susanna; the immature love of Cherubino and Barbarina; the rekindling warmth between Marcellina and Bartolo; the suggested connection between Cherubino and the Countess, which will be consummated in the final Beaumarchais Figaro play; and, providing the touching apotheosis to this web of ardour, the very adult passion between the Count and Countess. All of this is shown in very physical terms: the singers get their hands on each other and kiss, fondle, grope, and seduce their way through what is, at its heart, only a domestic drama, albeit a very human one, rather than a political satire.

The domesticity, too, is well portrayed. During the overture, servants crowd the stage and complete their various tasks; they listen in at keyholes and observe all the happenings of the household in rather an Upstairs, Downstairs kind of way. The all important Susanna-Countess and Figaro-Count relationships are noticeably closer than the gentry's relations with the other servants, showing their interdependency. Everyone has his or her place, but as McVicar observes by updating the action, these social strata are beginning to blur because of the times. All of this could become rather austere, but the other wonderful thing about the production is that while cast in an elegiac, autumnal light (the stage is exquisitely lit by Paule Constable), it also plays the slapstick moments as amusingly as you could hope. In particular, the set for Act II is so lavish that the comings and goings can be staged with a genuine sense of breathlessness rather than contrived clowning around.

Musical standards, too, are very high. The glory of the experience is provided by Antonio Pappano's conducting of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House on tip-top form. I've had my reservations about various of Pappano's endeavours at Covent Garden but this Figaro was one of the three most convincing performances I've seen him give there. With the exception of an over-fast Wedding Chorus and finale, the tempos are immaculate. I particularly admire how Pappano adapts to this music without becoming religious about period performance practice. Occasionally the strings moderate the amount of vibrato they use for a specific effect, but on the whole Pappano goes for a full-blooded, fleet-of-foot approach that places expression at the top of the list of priorities. The pit floor is raised to enhance the acoustic, and it really does sound glorious; it also helps the performers that they are nearer to the orchestra and vice versa. Most wonderful of all, Pappano plays the continuo himself from the harpsichord, which allows for a riveting fluidity between the set pieces and the recitatives. One can really appreciate this as a through-composed drama rather than a series of disconnected numbers.

The cast is largely very attractive, with some exceptions. Gerald Finley and Miah Persson provide the central axis of energy, the former always asserting authority with his elegant tone as the Count and the latter zipping about and controlling the affairs of the household as a sublimely creamy-voiced Susanna. Erwin Schrott is less to my taste as Figaro and I find Rinat Shaham rather thin of tone as Cherubino compared to various fine competitors on record, but Dorothea Röschmann makes a touching, if occasionally over-histrionic Countess, providing the ultimate tear-jerking moment with her tender delivery of her line of forgiveness of the Count in the closing scene. Jonathan Veira and Graciela Araya are strong in the acting department as Bartolo and Marcellina, but the latter in particular doesn't have a big enough voice for the part. Former Young Artist Ana James is a sweet-voiced Barbarina and Philip Langridge is luxury casting as Don Basilio.

Shot in high definition and in surround sound, this is a luxury package and one that should be purchased and treasured by every opera lover.

By Dominic McHugh