Opera buffa takes its name from the impossibly comic situations the lead characters find themselves in, and try in vain to extract themselves from, right through to the opera’s happy end. Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, after an Italian libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, is one such work and is characteristically chock-full of intrigue and hidden agenda.

Julie Fuchs (Susanna) © Judith Schlosser
Julie Fuchs (Susanna)
© Judith Schlosser

To detail the convoluted plot of the four-act opera would exceed the limitations of this short review. In a nutshell, a Countess and her loyal maid, Susanna, devise a plan to embarrass the Count for his incorrigible philandering. One hitch is that Susanna herself is the object of the Count’s unwanted desire; another is that she is engaged to Figaro, the Count’s personal valet. The constellation hardly bodes well. With themes of fear, suspicion and revenge, every one of the principals is forced by their circumstances to hide behind, under or in a stage prop at least once during the opera, and some characters do so multiple times. There are exchanges of clothing to “disguise” even wives from husbands, and instances where heated lovers are subject to mistaken identities in the arms of somebody else. Figaro is a heyday of cross-dressing, the torments of deceit and the bliss of conjugal love.

Anna Goryachova (Cherubino) and Michael Nagy (Count Almaviva) © Judith Schlosser
Anna Goryachova (Cherubino) and Michael Nagy (Count Almaviva)
© Judith Schlosser
Today, some of the traps Figaro's figures fall into are still simply hilarious. What’s more, Mozart’s music is nothing short of sheer delight. In Zurich, each voice of the familiar duets, trios, sextets and tutti was woven into a perfectly harmonious fabric of sound; the weights and balances of the different registers stayed in perfect equilibrium, the scope of real human emotion was exposed authentically. The Countess’s lament in the first scene of Act II is a prime example; in the role, Julia Kleiter sang of her yearning for her wayward husband with a pathos that was seriously heart-breaking.

Musically, the strings are often reserved for Figaro’s conflicts and outbursts, the woodwinds, likely to accompany his beloved Susanna, and the horns, used again and again to alert us to the duplicitousness of relationships or allude to gross infidelity. If Mozart set the marker for supreme musicality, he too would have been well satisfied with this performance. For despite the complex Baroque fabric, the voices and orchestration dovetailed beautifully.

Julie Fuchs’ Susanna was a stellar performance, both vocally and as an actress. Her voice is as clear as a bell, and she had a supreme command of the lengthy and demanding role, showing ease on the stage that was truly remarkable. The same could be said of her Figaro (Alexander Miminoshvili), who sang in a confident voice and with a fun-loving demeanour. Playing the upbeat, loveable guy that he did, it was clear that no girl in her right mind would reject him.

As the lovely Countess, Julia Kleiter got to voice one of the most memorable and flip lines of the whole libretto, “Men are unfaithful out of habit, and jealous out of pride,” but also showed a mature dimension that put the entire audience in her pocket. Her Count (Michael Nagy) was also superb. He rode the seesaw between smooth operator and cuckold with aplomb, and made me gulp when, intending revenge, he actually licked the barrel of his rifle as he set out to use it.

Julie Fuchs (Susanna) and Julia Kleiter (Countess) © Judith Schlosser
Julie Fuchs (Susanna) and Julia Kleiter (Countess)
© Judith Schlosser

The set and costumes (by Rolf Glittenburg and Marianne Glittenberg, respectively) were some of the most fitting I’ve seen on the Zurich stage. Sven-Eric Bechtolf sets the action in a large sitting room in the Count’s home; the furniture was functional and the wall coverings decorated with florals and succulents that recalled Victorian paintings of the tropics. They suggested a degree of sultry “heat” that was just the right innuendo. By the same token, the costumes were modest and manageable: no detail too many, no complicated schnick-schnack. Jürgen Hoffmann’s light design also complemented the action without calling attention to itself, just as stage lighting should.

Conductor’s Giovanni Antonini’s hands were gentle throughout; he often cupped his palms inwards as if to shape the players’ lines with slim, elegant fingers. Among the fine players, two soloists deserve special mention: Christine Theus’ cello could be likened to sweet cream; Andrea del Bianco’s harpsichord set a heartbeat that paced the whole orchestra’s energies.

While from the start, the Countess harboured the hope of “changing an ungrateful heart,” it’s only at the end of Act IV – amidst the seven merry-go-round ponies that encircle a collection of fallen, dead leaves – that she finally gets her wish. As all is resolved, the lovers and pairs are joined, the errant behaviour forgiven, and the whole company sings: “Only love can turn this day of torment, caprice and folly into joy and happiness.” A truism that nobody could have put better.