Thaddeus Strassberger’s Oslo production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is back for its fourth revival, yet it seems only to improve with age. While funny and good-looking on the surface, the production manages to put the searchlight on the social dynamics so inherent to the story, making it something much more than a piece of period fluff.

Strassberger’s production sets Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera in a clearly recognisable late 18th-century Spanish environment, or at least somewhere and sometime conforming to an idea of a “traditional” production of Figaro – although whatever “traditional” means here is anyone’s guess. Kevin Knight’s handsome sets and costumes certainly lent the production a look of “authenticity”, but beneath the veneer of traditionalism, Strassberger showed a penchant for highlighting the cruelty inherent in the score.

As so often happens in Strassberger’s productions, he lets several stories unfold at once, which can often come off as unnecessarily fussy and distracting from the main story. Luckily, in The Marriage of Figaro Strassberger – with the help of revival director Heidi Bruun Nedregaard – manages to find a balance between enlightenment and distraction, unlike his cluttered Don Giovanni. One of the most striking examples of this takes place during Cherubino’s aria “Non so più, cosa son” where, as Cherubino is pouring his heart out to Susanna, the Count is having his way with a very uncomfortable looking servant girl. While it is seductively easy to think of Cherubino only as a perpetually randy teenager, it is important to remember that he one day will have the same privileges as the Count, and the sexual power that comes with them.

One of the most interesting directorial decisions in this production is how the relationship between the Countess and Cherubino is made a lot more explicit. In The Guilty Mother, the last play of Beaumarchais’ Figaro trilogy (The Marriage of Figaro is the second), the Countess and Cherubino have a child together. While in this production, their affection for each other is limited to tender caresses and almost-kisses, it is clear that there is, or at least will shortly be, a sexual component to their relationship.

An interesting shift in tone happens between the two halves. While in the first two acts, Strassberger is actively trying to make a point regarding class and privilege, the next two acts, in particular the fourth, are much more overtly comical, questioning the opera itself rather than the underlying issues. That is not to say that the first half is not funny, but a darker current runs through the humour. After the plot itself takes a more farcical turn (with birthmarks, long-lost sons, letters, disguises and more pins than should be necessary), so does the production. The double wedding that closes the third act turns into a theatre performance, a play-within-the-opera, as does the fourth act garden scene. Such devices can often turn trite and overly wink-wink-nudge-nudge, but here it ends up being outrageously funny. The meta-antics of the fourth act are also luckily offset by the utter sublimity of its finale.

Vocally, the production proved a success, down to the smallest roles. Yngve Søberg was a robust Figaro, reprising the role for the fourth time in this production. His dark baritone has a pleasing smoothness to it, although his singing can sound somewhat unmotivated at times. Making her debut as Susanna, Kari Ulfsnes Kleiven struggled to be heard over the orchestra in the first act, although this was more the orchestra’s fault than hers. Her lower register had a tendency of disappearing, but the middle and high ranges opened up beautifully into a bright soprano. Ingeborg Gillebo’s Cherubino impressed as an awkwardly lanky, pubescent teenager, balancing between broad comedy and touching tenderness, all the while singing heartbreakingly beautifully.

Espen Langvik’s scheming Count bordered a little too close on cartoon villain at times, yet this smarmy characterisation fit him well. He impressed in “Hai già vinta la causa”, even getting the notoriously tricky triplet passage towards the end without a scratch. The vocal highlight of the evening, however, was the Countess of Nicole Heaston, her honeyed soprano taking on a silvery hue in her high register. Opening with a beautifully sung “Porgi, amor”, she appeared an effortless tragedienne, yet soon after, especially in her scenes with Susanna and Cherubino, she opened up to reveal a most human character. Heaston’s “Dove sono” was heartbreakingly sung, and it was wonderful to finally hear it sung by a soprano with a good trill!

Conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini led the opera house orchestra in a generally fast-paced, but never rushed reading of the score, despite some occasionally erratic tempo choices. The overture had grandeur without being heavy, and while the orchestra played wonderfully, they kept on playing rather too loudly well into the first half, often drowning out singers. Luckily, they eventually simmered down.

Underneath the pretty sets and costumes, Thaddeus Strassberger’s Marriage of Figaro manages to turn a critical eye both to the story’s class dynamics and partly to the opera itself. Combined with some excellent singing, the production manages to again make Figaro a piece of social criticism.