The Marriage of Figaro, Royal Opera House

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Helen Wallace enjoys a finely-balanced production of Mozart's masterpiece

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Alexandra Kurzak and Ildebrando D'ArcangeloDavid McVicar’s producton of The Marriage of Figaro opened in 2006 with the most glamorous of casts: Erwin Schrott the handsomest Figaro you ever saw, Dorothea Röschmann a melting Countess, Gerald Finley a menacing Count and Miah Persson a delightful Susanna. The revival in 2008 was lit by the genius of the late Sir Charles Mackerras, who made it an unmissable Mozart masterclass. So the stakes were high for this revival, laid on as part of the ROH’s Da Ponte cycle for the Olympic year – and not all was set fair. Simon Keenlyside and Kate Royal both pulled out some time ago, leaving the Count and Countess to be played by relative American newcomers, baritone Lucas Meachem and soprano Rachel Willis-Sørenson.
 
That this opening was a triumph is testament both to the finely-balanced cast and the strength of the production. Lucas Meachem’s lighter, golden baritone made the perfect foil for Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s charcoal-dark bass, while the statuesque Willis-Sørenson has a focused intensity to her delivery which sat well with Aleksandra Kurzak’s silvery bright Susanna.
 
Set in 1830, on the eve of the next French Revolution, David McVicar deftly draws out the battle lines while Pappano conjured a fleet-footed overture. In a vivacious choreography the uniformed servants reveal their high-spirited insubordination – an army-in-waiting to take over the palace – while Tanya McCallin’s gleaming, light-filled atrium is sharply contrasted with the dingy storeroom Figaro and Susanna have been given as a bedroom, with its one grimy window.
 
Kurzak and D’Arcangelo, both in the 2008 revival, bring a delightful fluidity to their roles and movement, mastering the stage in every situation, Kurzak all feline sensuality, D’Arcangelo becoming more and more like the suave Spanish Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story 3 (and that’s a compliment). The Count and Countess feel far less at home, which is how it should be, and are sympathetically drawn, Meachem more fool than villain, and the feisty Willis-Sørenson not beaten despite her funereal gown in the final scene.
 
There was some unevenness to her promising performance, though she hit her stride in the shining ensemble at the end of Act II and found dramatic depth when she coldly reminds the Count she’s ‘not that girl [Rosina] any more’. Anna Bonitatibus is, as ever, a convincing Cherubino, Jette Parker Young Artist Susana Gaspar made her debut as a sweetly youthful Barbarina, while Ann Murray is an irresistible Marcellina. Singers weren’t always precisely alongside Pappano’s crack orchestra, but there was a sense of intimate chamber-music dialogue between pit and stage, as few but Pappano can achieve.
 
The production, initially criticised for having too many ideas, has settled into a seamless work of stage-craft, its ideas all the better for being understated. When Figaro leans to pick a speck of dandruff off the Count’s shoulder, it says everything about the balance of power. And the change in atmosphere in Act IV for Barbarina’s aria, with all around her moving in slow motion, is eerily effective.
 
Performances continue until 2 March 
 

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine