Similar to several other opera houses such as Sydney or Los Angeles, where the architectural wonders of the building itself are in many instances more impressive than what takes place behind the proscenium, a Drottningholm Court Theatre performance is really a lot more than what happens on the stage and in the pit. Drottningholm is an exquisite 18th century opera house which has the distinction of being the only authentic Baroque theatre (complete with original hand-operated stage machinery) in the world. With just 400 seats, an intimate spectacle is guaranteed, although the extreme length and narrowness of the auditorium creates an acoustic which is not particularly forgiving to poor intonation or murky orchestra colourings.

Befitting the Swedish royal family’s origins from the House of Bernadotte, this was an all-French production of Figaro’s Bröllop (mercifully sung in Italian) led by director Ivan Alexandre who opted for a ‘play within a play’ single set. This was confusing in that a lot of the action moved back and forth from the stage proper to the dressing room space at the front of the stage. An even more alarming example of dubious directional originality was having the roles of Bartolo/Antonio and Basilio/Don Curzio sung by two singers and the total elimination of the chorus. Instead of lots of uncouth hunters, cooing peasants and grovelling farmers as Mozart specified, we were left with Marcellina, Bartolo, Basilio and even Barbarina to represent both vocally and dramatically the numerous vassals subject to the whims of the libidinous Count Almaviva.

There was an excess of commedia dell'arte in Monsieur Alexandre’s direction which deprived the work of any real seriousness and underplayed Beaumarchais’ socio-political hypothesis of a simmering revolt against the established order by the Count’s malcontent servants.

This is not to say that Figaro should be interpreted with the gravitas of Mozart’s Requiem. There were some very amusing directional ideas such as an emaciated Don Curzio so overwhelmed with cumbersome law books he literally slid to the floor under the weight. The Count enters his wife’s boudoir after the hunt in Act II with a very large dead rabbit which becomes quite an entertaining prop as the Act progresses.

But it was the conclusion which really made no sense. The “Corriam tutti a festiggiar” ensemble ran to pandemonium as Cherubino went on an erotic rampage slobbering over the Countess. This clearly pre-empts Alexandre’s continuing work at Drottningholm with the Mozart/da Ponte trilogy, where he sees Don Giovanni as a mature Cherubino reduced to mindless debauchery and then as Così fan tutte's Don Alfonso in his sagacious dotage. 

For the most part the singers were limited by the one-dimensional buffo direction. As the Countess, Swedish lyric soprano Camilla Tilling sang with a crystal vibrato-less cantilena and elegant phrasing. “Dove sono” was more successful than “Porgi d’amor”, with a particularly well executed top A natural. The Susanna of Dutch soprano Lenneke Ruiten was regrettably colourless in voice and charmless in acting. Similarly the Cherubino of Norwegian mezzo Ingeborg Gillebo, while displaying some good breath control and an agreeable vocal colour, somehow failed to make an impression. Miriam Treichi’s Marcellina was unmemorable except for the fact that she behaved more like a sluttish Maddelena in Rigoletto than a dour “dama d’honore”. Both Dr Bartolo and the gardener Antonio were sung by Italian Paolo Battaglia, who despite looking like something out of Pirates of the Caribbean in the former role, was one of the few singers with clear diction and an ability to articulate the patter passages adeptly.

As the fornicating Count, French baritone Florian Semprey had to battle silly costuming by Antoine Fontaine and makeup by Sofia Ranow (complete with very red lips) which made him look more like a preening androgynous dandy than a ruthless tyrant with a libido problem. This was regrettable, as Semprey has an impressive, unforced top register and agreeable tone colour even if the lower range still needs developing. The fioratura passages, clarion top Ds and top F sharp on during his aria “Vedrò mentr’io sospiro” rightly received a thunderous ovation.

The best performance of the evening came from Canadian baritone Robert Gleadow as Figaro who combined an attractive and remarkably athletic stage presence with some very fine singing. Here is a baritone with not only excellent diction, commendable word colouring and a consistently warm legato, but also exceptionally impressive projection. From his very first “Cinque” to impassioned top E Flats in “Aprite un po quel’occhi”, it was clear that both anti-aristocratic machinations and Mozartian melodic line were in very good hands.

Leading the Drottningholm Theatre Orchestra of 30 musicians, former enfant précoce maître d’orchestre Marc Minkowski seemed more concerned with setting new speed records than savouring the breadth and subtlety of this superb score. Tempi were so fast that the “Canzonetta sul’aria” was more like a “canzonetta alle tempeste”. On several occasions, such as the long septet conclusion to Act II, the singers had quite a fight to keep up. The orchestral sound was also rather muddy, despite only two double basses and two cellos.

But such musical humbug is not the point of attending an opera in Drottningholm. No matter how erudite the production, how fine the singers or how superb the orchestra, it is the house itself which remains la prima cosa assoluta.