Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro has always been deemed by many to have the air of revolution about it on a class basis, but seeing the opera in light of the revelations of #MeToo revelations gives the piece new colour. Though the droit du seigneur is unmistakably of its time, one cannot help at times but to wince at the similarities between behaviour in the opera and reports that have emerged in recent months.

Rhian Lois (Susanna) and Thomas Oliemans (Figaro) © Alastair Muir
Rhian Lois (Susanna) and Thomas Oliemans (Figaro)
© Alastair Muir

Fiona Shaw’s production for English National Opera, revived here for the second time under the supervision of Peter Relton, sees the lustful abuses by those in power over those in their service as very much a continuing phenomenon; she highlights this with period costume, but in a modernist set with design tendencies straight out of a European apartment block. It’s an unsubtle and rather basic concept that leaves a vague feeling of dissatisfaction and a craving for a little more complexity of thought. Vague video-projections of figures wearing minotaur masks added little and at times actively distracted from the stage.

Peter McKintosh’s set is not without merits in its maze-inspired construction; doors and corridors, staircases and passages, all evoking both the labyrinth (with the implication that Almaviva is a minotaur figure) and the warren of a country house, while servants are a regular feature in the background, adding an air of bustle. The revolving maze-house gives way to a more open setting in the fourth act while still providing plenty of hiding places for the assorted characters as the Countess’ plan unfolds, albeit with much scrabbling on the ground. Relton’s direction and choreography is sharp, with lively interaction between the cast and a general absence of the stand-and-deliver style of singing. From the fly in the harpsichord at the start of the evening – leading straight into the overture – to the blindness of Don Basilio, there are plenty of interesting quirks to elicit a smile.

Lucy Crowe (Countess Almaviva) © Alastair Muir
Lucy Crowe (Countess Almaviva)
© Alastair Muir

One of the draws of the production is surely to see Lucy Crowe make her role debut as the Countess. Crowe has established herself, in no small part due to her performances at ENO, as one of this country’s leading Mozartians and her assumption of this role was a tremendous success. All of Crowe’s calling cards – depth of expression, purity of tone and clarity of diction – were on show and, as usual, she showed the ability not just to sing a role, but to inhabit it. There’s a physicality to her performance, at its most impressive on the two occasions when she attached herself to a servant, pulling his arm around her and leaning into him in desperation, conveying just as much sadness with her body as that she poured into a ravishing “Dove sono”. Crowe’s artistry is a total delight to hear and behold.

Ashley Riches (Count Almaviva) and Rhian Lois (Susanna) © Alastair Muir
Ashley Riches (Count Almaviva) and Rhian Lois (Susanna)
© Alastair Muir

Ashley Riches sang the Count and certainly looked the part, towering and smouldering above the rest of the cast, and while he didn’t always strike the kind of lecherous menace that would suit Shaw’s production, he carried off an air of thwarted bitterness extremely well. He has a handsome voice and sang with plenty of colour, his performance in the Act 2 trio particularly strong. Thomas Oliemans was a boisterous Figaro, immediately likeable and showing a clear knack for comic timing. His tone was a little dry at times, but it’s certainly a strident baritone and Oliemans gave “Se vuol ballare” such an edge that he could almost have been singing through gritted teeth. Rhian Lois was a sparky Susanna, but one craved a little more size to a voice which, though sweet, often seemed to be lost in ensemble moments.

Katie Coventry (Cherubino) © Alastair Muir
Katie Coventry (Cherubino)
© Alastair Muir

Katie Coventry’s sassy Cherubino was joyfully sung and raucously acted, full of youthful passion and mischief. Janis Kelly’s Marcellina swung with ease from a superb performance of vinegar and lemon in the first half to maternal sweetness in the second, and Keel Watson gave a suitably magisterial Dr Bartolo. Colin Judson made the most of the blind Don Basilio, the slightly sinister sniffing a good touch.

As ever, the ENO Chorus gave a strong performance in both acting and vocal terms. Martyn Brabbins’ reading of the score did not entirely fizz, but he succeeded in striking a careful balance between the soloists and orchestra, and was at his best in driving the more tense moments of the piece. Overall after several recent duds, ENO is back on form.

****1