Is it too much to hope that one day, at the end of The Marriage of Figaro, Countess Almaviva and Susanna will turn round and say no to their bullying, hypocritical men? I like to imagine them having the freedom in which they can choose to run off to happier, fulfilled lives, probably rescuing Barbarina too, and in Joe Austin’s ravishing new production with Nevill Holt Opera at Sage Gateshead last night, there were moments when my alternative outcome seemed almost possible.

Aoife Miskelly (Susanna), Anna Harvey (Cherubino) and Sky Ingram (The Countess)
© Robert Workman

This production is a collaboration between Nevill Holt Opera and Royal Northern Sinfonia, with the first performances opening Nevill Holt’s acclaimed new theatre at their home in Leicestershire before the return visit to Gateshead. I’ve seen a few semi-staged operas in Hall One, but fully-staged productions are rare – I had no idea that the hall even has a pit. A simple white set, with graceful scalloped arches, put the opera firmly in its Spanish setting, with the actors contrasting sharply the cool background in dazzling colours: rich purple, turquoise, green and cerise. The sumptuous looks and were deceptive though, and there were strong undercurrents of nastiness and cruelty. These emerged through menacing undertones in the orchestra, and on stage through suggestive gestures and inappropriate touching such as Count Almaviva molesting Susanna when she faints. The last act was prefaced by debauched party scenes, guests staggering about swigging out of wine bottles and roaring drunkenly, but there was a vulnerability about the girls slumped drunkenly at the front of the stage, potential victims for the predatory Count perhaps.

In the two principal female roles, Aoife Miskelly (Susanna) and Sky Ingram (Countess Almaviva) both gave strong, intensely dramatic performances. Miskelly’s singing was lithe and bright. Her Susanna was no innocent girl, but a strong woman who knows full well what is going on around her, and her supressed fury exploded into terrying rages given enough provocation. Her outburst of anger in the garden felt all the more bitter for coming straight after her affecting love-aria “Deh vieni, non tardar”, with lovely floating high notes. Ingram’s Countess also delivered powerful emotions in her arias. “Porgi, amor” was painfully sad and lonely; and in her white nightdress she blended into the scenery, heightening the impression that everyone had forgotten her, until Susanna arrives and quietly stands in a doorway, watching wisely. Later, she delivered an expressive “Dove sono”, supported by a sublime oboe solo, which was made all the more poignant by the wedding preparations going on around her.

The Marriage of Figaro
© Robert Workman

As Count Almaviva, James Newby drew out his character’s unpleasantness through smooth-toned and persuasive singing, continually exuding injured pride: his Count is the sort of man who absolutely refuses to see why his behaviour is so wrong and doesn’t understand why everyone is being so mean to him. His authoritative singing also betrayed the sense that this Count could be extremely dangerous if thwarted: his behaviour towards the Countess when he thinks Cherubino is locked in her wardrobe suggested more than a hint of domestic violence. Lawson Anderson’s Figaro was all breezy self-confidence, always ready with a smart answer, but like the Count, there’s a suggestion that he too is unaware that he crosses the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. His angular, energetic delivery of Figaro’s first aria, “Se vuol ballare” was very enjoyable as a performance and nicely set Figaro up as another example of misdirected male pride.

Aoife Miskelly (Susanna) and Lawson Anderson (Figaro)
© Robert Workman

These days the sexual politics of Mozart’s operas make uncomfortable viewing, and Austin and his team did a good job of keeping us aware of this, without overdoing it, and strong comic acting throughout the supporting cast provided a foil to the opera’s darker side. Joan Rodgers as Marcellina set sparks flying in her Act 1 spat with Susanna, and her sweet bewilderment at the revelation of Figaro’s parentage was played for laughs. Stephen Richardson as Dr Bartolo rattled out his incessant legalese barely pausing for breath, and Andrew Tipple was hilarious in his brief appearance as Antonio, as was Rowan Pierce, whose drunken Barbarina in Act 4 blew the lost pin out of all proportion. I was less certain about Anna Harvey’s Cherubino: her aria “Non so più cosa son” was delightfully lust-crazed but she didn’t convince me that she was a boy dressed as a girl. Royal Northern Sinfonia always feel absolutely at home with Mozart, and under conductor Nicholas Chalmers they enhanced every moment of the action on stage.

Figaro ends with a suitably cheerful chorus, but the jollities rang hollow this evening and what really stuck in my mind was the bleakness of the penultimate ensemble. Ingram’s Countess had dispensed her pardon with cool grace, but the suggestion that everyone would now be happy was tinged with regret and a realisation that nothing was going to change.