Le nozze di Figaro is often cited as the most perfect opera ever composed – a claim against which I find it difficult to argue. Based on Beaumarchais’ revolutionary La folle journée, with its satirical swipe at aristocratic privilege, it was the first collaboration between Mozart and his brilliant librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. Their detailed characterisations, not just of the principals but the comprimario roles too, give directors plenty of scope. Replacing Jonathan Miller’s popular 1998 production at the Metropolitan Opera comes a new staging by another British director, Richard Eyre, which updates the action to 1930s Spain.

Ildar Abdrazakov (Figaro) and Isabel Leonard (Cherubino) © Ken Howard
Ildar Abdrazakov (Figaro) and Isabel Leonard (Cherubino)
© Ken Howard

After tortured union negotiations and the threat of a lockout over the summer, there was a palpable sense of relief last night that the Met Opera’s new season was launching on time. In front of the Lincoln Center, there were protests against the decision to stage John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer later this autumn, but inside, few feathers were ruffled – and there were boas aplenty in evidence. That sense of relief extended to the presence of James Levine in the cavernous orchestra pit – Figaro was his first opening night for four years. The House reveres him, affording a standing ovation at the curtain call.

Despite the general adulation for Levine exhibited in the House, I found his tempi on the slow side and, more disconcertingly, there were several points in the evening when singers were pushing ahead of the beat, almost trying to drag the orchestra along. An exception came in “Aprite un po' quegli occhi” where strings stabbed and the horns’ cuckolding whoops pricked Figaro’s insecurities.

Eyre’s inspiration for this production comes from Jean Renoir’s 1939 film La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game) – a satirical comedy that was inspired, in turn, by Beaumarchais’ Figaro. Rob Howell’s set is a clever series of circular towers, lined with Moorish tracery, which revolve to allow us to move seamlessly from one scene to the next. It also allows Eyre to introduce the characters during the bustling overture: a half-naked maid scurries to work after being bedded by the Count, emerging from the room seconds later, nonchalantly donning a red silk dressing gown; the Countess suffers a tormented sleepless night; Antonio is busy planting geraniums; the servants are preparing for the day ahead. The constantly spinning towers plunged us into the action with dizzying effect.

Amanda Majeski, Marlis Petersen, Ildar Abdrazakov, Peter Mattei © Ken Howard
Amanda Majeski, Marlis Petersen, Ildar Abdrazakov, Peter Mattei
© Ken Howard

Whether it was unconscious word association deriving from these towers, or prompted by the country house costumes – but my mind kept being drawn to a classic British farce: Peter Mattei’s Count was the very spit of Basil Fawlty, the much put-upon hotelier in Fawlty Towers, both in appearance (Mattei clears 6’5”) and in his comic gift for expressing exasperation. His double-take at discovering Cherubino concealed in Susanna’s bedroom was worthy of John Cleese’s genius. That association lessened the impact (for me) of the Count as sexual predator, making him more a frustrated seducer who was always going to be outwitted. It was unfortunate that his line “Contessa, perdono” – one of the most poignant moments in opera – was met by audience laughter, but this would-be Don Juan’s expression of regret surely wouldn’t last beyond the week. That the Countess not only forgives him, but jumps girlishly into his arms defies dramatic credibility.

Isabel Leonard (Cherubino) and Marlis Petersen (Susanna) © Ken Howard
Isabel Leonard (Cherubino) and Marlis Petersen (Susanna)
© Ken Howard

Otherwise, Eyre directs his cast to perfection. Marlis Petersen and Ildar Abdrazakov make an appealing couple, Petersen’s Susanna brimming with sexual tension, offering a sensuous “Deh vieni, non tardar”. Abdrazakov’s Figaro was suitably amiable and dull-witted, packing Cherubino off to the army with a superb “Non più andrai” and cynically probing his flashlight among the Stalls to warn us of women’s infidelity in “Aprite un po' quegli occhi”. Isabel Leonard’s hormonal Cherubino threatened to steal the show, the throbbing desire in “Non so più cosa son” palpable. Her comic acting was acutely observed, especially when the page boy is dressed in the Countess’ clothes, staggering across the stage in heels. Howell’s set requires Cherubino to jump from a bedroom window high above a wardrobe – a Tosca-like leap hilariously executed.

Mattei’s Count was in mellifluous vocal form, his warm baritone offering a polished “Vedrò, mentr'io sospiro” as one of the evening’s highlights. Amanda Majeski’s Countess conveyed the deep emotional scars of a loveless marriage. Both her arias displayed a soprano whose upper register can sound a little glassy, and her marked vibrato wasn’t helped by Levine’s sluggish tempo for “Porgi amor”. She was stronger in the sublime “Sull-aria” duet.

Smaller roles, whilst sharply realised, were not cast from vocal strength, John Del Carlo’s blustery Bartolo sounding particularly overblown. The arias cut for Marcellina and Don Basilio cut from Act IV weren’t missed. Ying Fang’s appealing Barbarina was the exception.

Eyre’s witty direction may weight the opera too heavily towards bedroom farce than satirical drama, but with sparky acting it’s difficult not to be won over. 

****1