Although written many years before Rossini's The Barber of Seville, the story of The Marriage of Figaro is in fact the sequel to that of the later opera. This farcical masterpiece of the opera buffa style was the first of three operas Mozart worked on with the Italian librettist Lorenzo da Ponte and was a risky undertaking. This somewhat political comedy pokes fun at the aristocracy, and paints one of its lead characters, Count Almaviva, as a jealous and lecherous fool who uses his status to force women into bed with him – something his wife, the Countess, is none too happy about. The original play was banned by the Viennese censors, and da Ponte had to tread carefully when adapting it for operatic stage, changing what should have been an aria about the problems of inherited aristocracy into one about the faithlessness of wives, and tweaking the dialogue to make the count appear to be less of an imbecile than in the play. Pleasing the censors was all-important; in 18th-century Europe an opera that couldn't be performed in Vienna was hardly an opera at all.

The Marriage of Figaro; staging by Dieter Dorn; photo © Wilfried Hösl
The Marriage of Figaro; staging by Dieter Dorn; photo
© Wilfried Hösl

Mozart's resulting masterpiece is not only one of his most popular operas, but one of the most popular operas by any composer. As with any popular work, theatre directors and designers are always trying to shed new light on it, and take it in new directions. This Bavarian State Opera production takes simplicity as its starting point, with a very minimalist set, consisting of nothing more than a large plain white room, which takes up the entire stage. This focuses attention towards the singers on stage, while adding the freshness and lightness so vital for a farcical comedy such as this.

Following a sprightly and lyrical rendition of the overture from the Bayerisches Staatsorchester, with Dan Ettinger on the podium, we entered the bedroom of the soon-to-be wedded couple, Figaro (Luca Pisaroni) and Susanna (Laura Tatulescu). Their little lovers' tiff, sparked by Susanna's concern that their new bedroom lies a little too close to the salacious Count's for comfort, began somewhat unevenly, with Tatulescu being no match for Pisaroni's generous baritone. However, this impression didn't last, and as she warmed into the performance through this first scene her characterful singing showed her to be not only a wonderful soprano, but a brilliant comic actress, using all of her body language, the words, and the music to enhance the comic effect.

As if Susanna didn't have enough to be getting on with, the youthful page Cherubino (a trouser role, played by soprano Angela Brower) also takes something of a shine to her (though he seems to fall for any female in his line of sight). Brower's rendition of Cherubino's song was simultaneously moving and comic, full of colour but always light and flowing. However, the young man causes something of a kerfuffle when the Count (Simon Keenlyside) discovers him in Susanna's bedroom. Keenlyside's comic style is perfect for this role, and in this particular scene he creates moments that make the audience laugh out loud.

Act II opens with one of the Countess' (Anja Harteros) main arias, lamenting her loss of the Count's affections. Harteros' rich voice combined with her simple delivery and heart-stopping pianos enhance the aria's sense of sorrow, creating an island of beautiful emotion within this otherwise debauched spectacle. As the rest of the drama unfolds we discover Figaro's parents, find a mate for the over-passionate Cherubino, and even manage to remind the Count that he has a lovely wife already and shouldn't be chasing after his servants' fiancées. It all comes to a very 'happily ever after' ending, and there's a lot of fun had on the way.

This is a great production in all regards; well sung, well acted, well played and with a delightful, if simple, set which helps to bring the whole thing to life. Keenlyside's delivery of the Count's aria in Act III, venting his anger at being tricked by the others, was a particular highlight, as was Fabio Cerroni's imaginative fortepiano accompaniment to the recitative. Almost stealing the show, Alfred Kuhn's heartily comic interpretation of the elderly gardener Antonio won the hearts of the crowd, and created some of the best comic moments in the whole show.

While this was a light and enjoyable performance, The Marriage of Figaro, with its ridiculous characters and convoluted plot, is for me a true farce. Tonight's cast are clearly not afraid of some slapstick comedy, but I felt that this could have been played on more than it was. The orchestra played the score very stylishly, but still injecting it with drama when the music asked for it. Despite some ensemble issues, this was one of the strongest and most even casts I've ever seen at the Bayerische Staatsoper, not only in terms of singing but acting too. This production will surely continue to return for years to come, but the current singers have left some very big shoes to fill.

****1