Gothenburg Opera opened their new operatic season with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s madcap comedy The Marriage of Figaro. A colourful and mixed audience of all ages packed out the elegant ship-shaped opera house on Gothenburg’s quayside that celebrates its 20th year and gives a breathtaking view of the city harbour from its windowed facade.

Malin Hartelius (Countess Almaviva) © Mats Bäcker
Malin Hartelius (Countess Almaviva)
© Mats Bäcker
With few exceptions, these performances of Figaro are being given by two different sets of personnel (including two different conductors), the first being from the première to the middle of October and the second thereafter. This double-casting was particularly fortunate for the première, since the singer of the major role of Susanna withdrew due to illness on the day before, so that Sofie Asplund, scheduled to play the role in six weeks time, was thrown in at the deep end, showing herself able to swim with ease.

While the tangled plot of Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto is set in the late 18th century, Stephen Langridge, Gothenburg Opera’s artistic director and director of this production, sets the action in a timeless classical environment. George Souglides's set designs are a stroke of genius: a building in the style of an English country house with transparent walls, through which one can make out the tree in the garden behind. Or, to put it more precisely, you can see only the main framework of the building, which is separated into various sparsely furnished, rearrangeable rooms. Behind the most important rooms (those of the Countess, Figaro and Susanna, and the Count), you can also see into other parts of the house. While the main action is going on, these subsidiary spaces have a dumb show in which is revealed the wheeling and dealing that forms the background of the plot.

Thomas Oliemans (Count Almaviva), Markus Schwartz (Figaro) and Sofie Asplund (Susanna) © Mats Bäcker
Thomas Oliemans (Count Almaviva), Markus Schwartz (Figaro) and Sofie Asplund (Susanna)
© Mats Bäcker
Also on show are Souglides’s excellent depictions. Costumes are partially historically inspired, as in Susanna’s serving maid’s uniform or Figaro’s light turquoise wedding suit. The thoughtful colour scheme is also to be found in Giuseppe di Iorio’s perfectly matched lighting: at one moment, the background is lit in deep purple for the grief-laden arias of the Countess (sung by Malin Hartelius with feeling in a voice quivering with emotion); at another, the lights are made to freeze the scene in silhouette, or you see bright blended accents of colour, as when the wedding is threatened with disruption by the appearance of the somewhat fatuitous Marcellina, wearing zebra stripes (with equally multicoloured singing from Carolina Sandgren) and Dr. Bartolo (Mats Almgren, a textbook deep bass).

Against this clear background, the action of the finale moves into the wood with an actually smoking summer house. Thanks to a masterful, detailed direction by Langridge with original, precise, screamingly funny, sometimes comically dancelike elements (Dan O’Neill), this was entertainment of the highest level, down to the last chord.

After all these chaotic tribulations, there is a moment of tender reconciliation between the Count and Countess Almaviva, after which two marital beds are pushed onstage into the wood and the couple, love re-kindled, have a roll in the hay in front of everyone, while fireworks and golden rain are set off à la Football World Cup Final. Mozart would have taken much pleasure in this ending!

Thomas Oliemans (Count Almaviva) and Ida Falk Winland (Susanna) © Mats Bäcker
Thomas Oliemans (Count Almaviva) and Ida Falk Winland (Susanna)
© Mats Bäcker

By the way, all the soloists (as well as the main chorus and the youth chorus) were in top form. Sofie Asplund sang a brilliant Susanna in her bright voice clear as flowing water and convinced us with her acting, just as her equally skilled co-star Markus Schwartz as a great sounding Figaro. Thomas Oliemans was a charismatic Count, whose baritone voice was as irresistible as his appearance of a bon viveur. With an elegant, rich voice, Anna Grevelius portrayed an amusingly daft Cherubino. The smaller roles were equally excellent, especially Iwar Bergkwist as Basilio, a music teacher in the original, here turned into a peeping tom of a clergyman, always at the keyhole of the Countess’s living quarters, observing covertly and humming with the typically unctuous voice of a church dignitary - a great directorial idea!

Last but not least the orchestra: as soon as the overture had started, we could tell that this performance of Figaro would be a fine specimen from the historically informed stable, under the total control of the British conductor Jane Glover, who, to cap it all, accompanied the recitatives on the fortepiano.

The appreciative audience greeted this première by applauding every scene, giving a standing ovation at the close. Mozart’s Figaro in Gothenburg - that’s the way opera should be!

Translated from German by David Karlin