After a six week hiatus, the Metropolitan Opera's new Le nozze di Figaro has returned, with a new cast and conductor. I agree entirely with Mark Pullinger's assessment of the set by Rob Howell as well as Richard Eyre's direction: The update to Spain in the 1930s does no harm; the handsome, see-through revolving towers offer easy, unobtrusive scene changes, and the action during the overture gives us a fine idea of each character. The handsome costumes (also by Rob Howell) are period-elegant: this is a wealthy family; the Count wears either evening wear or a red-silk dressing gown, the Countess is in flowing gowns of black and white or red and black. Figaro and Susanna are not bumpkins at all – in fact, they're quite spiffy. The class differences between upstairs and downstairs may be foremost in the Count's mind, but ‘the help’ know how to get what they want while standing up to him.

Danielle de Niese (Susanna) and Mariusz Kwiecień (Count Almaviva) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Danielle de Niese (Susanna) and Mariusz Kwiecień (Count Almaviva)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

One serious difference in the cast's attitude between the prima and the six-week-later revival, judging from Mr Pullinger's review, is that the Count is not seen as foolish. Fooled, indeed, but not Basil Fawlty on any level. I assume this is due to the baritone's take on the role, in this case, the superb Mariusz Kwiecień, certainly one of the top three Mozart baritones in the world (along with Peter Mattei and Simon Keenlyside), who grabbed the role of the Count with both hands and portrayed a nasty, oversexed, frustrated tyrant who doesn’t notice until Act III that everyone else is in on some sort of plot. His singing and acting was remarkable all night, but his big aria, complete with impeccable runs, a fine trill and a huge, spot-on high F sharp, brought the house down.

In her Met debut role as the Countess, soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen, winner of the 2010 Met National Council Auditions and the First Prize for Opera, First Prize for Zarzuela, and Birgit Nilsson Prize at this year's Operalia competition, began tentatively and somewhat gracelessly, but warmed up as the evening progressed. The voice is opulent (my sense is that she’s headed for Strauss and Wagner soon) but she can scale it down to a lovely pianissimo, and her attention to the text made her reading a success.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Countess), Erwin Schrott (Figaro), Danielle de Niese and Mariusz Kwiecień © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Countess), Erwin Schrott (Figaro), Danielle de Niese and Mariusz Kwiecień
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Downstairs, Erwin Schrott, a pitch problem here and there notwithstanding, was a fine Figaro, acting with ease and comfort, singing with plush, dark sound and proving he was every bit the man the Count is. Susanna was Daniele de Niese, the only person who sang to the gallery – rolling her eyes, shrugging her shoulders, waving her arms - and delivering a “Deh, vieni non tardar” that was as intense as Salome’s final scene. Also having some issues with pitch, she was the evening’s weak link, more of a distraction than a household member. Another Met debutante, mezzo Serena Malfi, was a charmingly boyish Cherubino, adding grown-up male swagger to the character by the last act.

John Del Carlo, all six-and-a-half feet of him, sang with large, if unfocused tone as Bartolo, and veteran mezzo Susanne Mentzer was a surprised, forgiving Marcellina. Alan Oke was the impressive Basilio; Ashley Emerson made the most of Barbarina.

Edo de Waart led a performance full of warmth and wit, supporting the singers elegantly, and the Met Orchestra was in fine form. Basilio and Marcellina lost their last act arias – no complaints here – and de Waart cut about ten minutes off James Levine’s timings earlier in the season. In all, de Niese’s mugging excepted, a terrific Figaro.