Set on a country estate just outside a picturesque city, with much of the action playing out against its lavish gardens, Le nozze di Figaro seems tailor-made for Garsington. John Cox’s efficient, no-nonsense production opened here in 2005, but could be ten or twenty years older: there’s nothing to frighten the horses here, with powdered wigs, breeches and corsets aplenty, and the overall impression is of a director who’s content to stay out of the spotlight and simply allow Mozart and Da Ponte’s well-made play to unfold with clarity and class.

Jennifer France (Susanna)
© Mark Douet

The darker aspects of a work that’s shot through with class tensions and complex sexual politics are largely glossed over. However, little touches like Figaro knocking the Count’s coat of arms from the wall in his first aria and the sardonic impudence of the evidently already-deflowered village girls (one patting her pregnant stomach!) as they troop in to praise their master’s supposed abolition of his droit de seigneur register all the more keenly for this. Douglas Boyd’s reading of the score works hand-in-glove with Cox’s approach, emphasising the rococo elegance and timeless charm of the music rather than the bubbling, even subversive energy that’s played up by the likes of Teodor Currentzis.

In a strong, committed cast, first among equals is Jennifer France’s immaculately-sung and beautifully nuanced Susanna, always alert and engaged but never playing to the gallery. Her lilting Act Four serenade (ostensibly addressed to the Count, but really for the benefit of the eavesdropping Figaro himself) was the musical highlight of the evening, sung on a thread of silvery tone with such hushed introspection that one could’ve heard Barbarina’s much-lamented pin drop.

Jennifer France (Susanna), Kirsten Mackinnon (Countess) and Marta Fontanals Simmons (Cherubino)
© Mark Douet

Less voluptuous of voice and presence than her predecessors in this production, France gives us a Susanna who trades on her sharp wits rather than any overt sensuality, both in her dealings with Joshua Bloom’s big-voiced, endearingly bumptious Figaro (clearly not quite her intellectual equal, despite his moments of brash self-confidence) and Duncan Rock’s smarter-than-average Count. The Australian baritone is a natural stage-animal, capable of commanding instant attention even when delivering the most introverted recitative (no mean feat when it comes to marshalling a post-prandial audience after the long dinner interval with the low-key opening of Act Three), and I’d love to see him in a production which tapped into the character’s darker side a little more.

Canadian soprano Kirsten MacKinnon (still only in her mid-twenties) makes for a Countess closer than usual in age and spirit to both Susanna and to the Rosina of The Barber of Seville, however much she insists to her husband that “I’m no longer that girl”. Once the flicker of nerves evident in her opening aria had subsided, she revealed a big, richly-coloured soprano that’s surely destined for Strauss and Puccini, and her “Dove sono” brims with real optimism and confidence in her ability to turn things around rather than being weighed down with dogged desperation. Her chemistry with Marta Fontanals-Simmons’ strapping Cherubino (so convincingly masculine that I had to do a discreet programme-check when she first burst onto the scene) really sizzles – one senses that her husband’s jealousy is perhaps not entirely without foundation.

Jennifer France (Susanna) Joshua Bloom (Figaro)
© Mark Douet

The smaller roles are given luxury 3D treatment, especially Janis Kelly’s garish but still-glamorous Marcellina (whose transformation from spiteful cougar to tiger-mother is at once hilarious and touching) and Timothy Robinson’s deliciously dandyish Don Basilio – what a treat it would have been to have their Act Four arias, but once you factor in a 90-minute dinner-interval Figaro is, after all, a long evening.

As with Garsington’s award-winning Cunning Little Vixen in 2014, the Wormsley Estate itself plays a magical role in the proceedings, especially towards the end. Thanks to the natural light, it’s as if the “mad day” unfolds in real time: sunlight streams through the theatre’s windows as Figaro and Susanna move into their new quarters in the opening scene, with night descending just as their wedding-festivities get underway. There’s also additional fun to be had in the second act from seeing Cherubino fleeing through the garden, tailed by an outraged Antonio. However, if I’m being pedantic it does seem a little odd that by the Act II finale Figaro, the Count and even the worse-for-wear gardener have no problems negotiating the window overlooking the flower-beds, which a panicky Susanna has warned Cherubino is “too high to jump from” just a few minutes earlier.

As an introduction to the opera (or indeed to opera in general), you could hardly do better than this slick, great-looking show. If you already know Figaro well, don’t expect any real revelations from the production, but catch it if you can for the sheer energy and charm exuded by the entire cast, and for France’s adorable Susanna in particular.