It’s fashionable to criticise opera directors for imposing their ideas at the expense of the music, but in the case of Norwegian director Stefan Herheim’s production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro for Hamburg Opera, first seen in 2015, the music is everywhere. Literally. The costumes (Gesine Völlm) and entire set (Christof Hetzer) are composed from pages of Mozart’s manuscript. And at the start of the overture we even get to follow the score, as its pages scroll before us on a big cinema screen before the notes themselves begin to escape from the staves and the fun takes off, courtesy of animation by the ubiquitous fettFilm.

<i>Le nozze di Figaro</i> © Karl Forster
Le nozze di Figaro
© Karl Forster

Little ‘matchstick’ figures form from Mozart’s pen-strokes and the pursuit of love is on, culminating in the female figure being chased by a shoal of sperm. After all, the opera is all about sex. And to emphasise the fact, the only item of furniture in the tunnel-like, manuscript-covered void that forms the set, is a big double bed, upon which all the ‘action’ of note takes place and from which characters appear as if by magic – it’s a trick Herheim exploited in his famous Bayreuth Parsifal and testament once again to his sheer mastery of stagecraft. Even Cherubino’s escape from the Countess’s bedroom is a leap into the void from the headboard.

<i>Le nozze di Figaro</i> © Karl Forster
Le nozze di Figaro
© Karl Forster

Yes, it’s irreverent, but everything leads from the music and plot themselves. Cherubino’s teenage infatuations are illustrated with more witty animation accompanying “Non so più”, and in the evening’s biggest coup de théâtre, at the climax of the mayhem and confusion at the end of Act II, the 1,500 sheets of manuscript clinging to the inside of the set fall to the ground, revealing a cage-like framework again composed of staves of Mozart’s music – the characters are trapped. In one sense this means that the production climaxes too early, and Acts III and especially IV, in the ‘garden’, don’t quite have the same visual impact as the rest, but one can still see what Herheim is getting at in his marshalling of his characters on the stage.

Wilhelm Schwinghammer (Figaro) © Karl Forster (2015)
Wilhelm Schwinghammer (Figaro)
© Karl Forster (2015)

This first revival is cast largely from Hamburg’s ensemble, and further vindication that a core of salaried singers should be at the heart of any opera company worth its name. Who needs expensive fly-in stars for a bread-and-butter repertoire piece when the home team can do the job as successfully as this? Many of the cast were veterans of the first run, including the forthright Figaro of Wilhelm Schwinghammer (who with a name like that one feels ought to be typecast as Donner), Iulia Maria Dan’s well-delineated Countess and Dorottya Láng’s spunky Cherubino. New were Alexey Bogdanchikov’s robust but eloquent Count and a confident Susanna from Hayoung Lee. The remaining soloists – Fabrizio Beggi (a strong, sonorous Don Bartolo), Katya Pieweck (Marcellina), Jürgen Sacher (Don Basilio), Peter Galliard (Don Curzio), Franz Mayer (Antonio) and opera studio member Narea Son (Barberina) – all contributed to the success of the performance. As did Michele Gamba’s conducting of the orchestra – a suave, playful account neither heavily traditional nor bogged down with period-performance obsessiveness.