In our heightened political era, you might be tempted to say that Welsh National Opera has missed an opportunity to modernise this Marriage of Figaro in a way that accentuates its strident social commentary, so acute in the original Beaumarchais source material that it was banned in Vienna by Emperor Joseph II. Conversely, Mozart’s Figaro has always worn its subversion lightly, making it easy to forget that revolution was just around the corner when it premiered in 1786. Anyone attending the company's latest airing of a period Figaro it first performed in 2016 will be glad that they played it straight on this occasion: indeed, Mozart’s finest opera is surely never more relevant in fraught times than when it is allowed to be pure, unalloyed escapism.

Soraya Mafi (Susanna) and Anita Watson (Countess) © Richard Hubert Smith
Soraya Mafi (Susanna) and Anita Watson (Countess)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The cast was the strongest I have seen for some time at the WNO. Soraya Mafi was an ebullient Susanna whose exquisite honeyed timbre (notably fine in the higher registers) was matched by her exceptional acting. The phrase “star quality” is scattered about too liberally, but Mafi really does deserve the label. Anita Watson also excelled as the Countess: her moment of reflection in the aria “Dove sono” was one of the performances of the night, while Jonathan McGovern’s shrewd interpretation of the Count was dense but likeable rather than calculated philanderer, ripe for easy redemption. Anna Harvey brought a freshness to her Cherubino and has a clarity of voice that suits the role; her straightly delivered “Voi, che sapete” providing a teasing sweetness that is lost when overdone in a haze of vibrato. Leah-Marian Jones brought a note of depth to the cartoonish Marcellina: her switch from devilish conspirator to maternal benefactor at the discovery of her true relationship to David Ireland's Figaro was subtly moving: the pantomime dame made real, if only for the briefest of moments.

Anna Harvey (Cherubino) and David Ireland (Figaro) © Richard Hubert Smith
Anna Harvey (Cherubino) and David Ireland (Figaro)
© Richard Hubert Smith

And yet, while there were standout moments from all of the main players, it is notable and unusual that not one shone above the others. Not because they were not all brilliant in their own right, but because Max Hoehn’s direction seems to have fostered a collective spirit of excellence. The sheer joy from the ensemble was palpable, and as a result, the entire piece crackled with humour, goodwill and pure joie de vivre.

The WNO orchestra was a reliable presence, oozing a pleasing dynamism, albeit one coupled with a frustrating tendency to rush in places. This was a feature in WNO’s first outing of this production when Lothar Koenigs was conductor, and continues to be so under the baton of Carlo Rizzi. While this didn’t affect the whole, there was an overall impression of an orchestra needing to catch its breath.

<i>Le nozze di Figaro</i> © Richard Hubert Smith
Le nozze di Figaro
© Richard Hubert Smith

Costume designer Sue Blane deserves praise for her sumptuous creations: the Countess’ layered purple gown is a perfect confluence of high camp and aristocratic decadence that complements the Carry On-esque scenes of mistaken identity. That said, the lavish costumes are let down by a lacklustre set: the odd blandness of the Countess’ bedroom in Act 1 is a particular distraction. The staging does improve in the latter half, and the simple cobalt backdrop and judicious use of space in the wedding scene is genuinely affecting.

To say this performance was supremely competent damns it with a faint praise that suggests much less than it deserves. Instead, I will simply say that the audience is in safe hands with this accomplished production. Gone are the fussy innovations from the 2016 version and so much the better: the ensemble is tight, the individual performances a joy, and humour abounds. This is a solid Figaro, at which to be entertained is a certainty.

****1