This gleeful production of The Marriage of Figaro made it hard to imagine any dark side at all to the comedy. The ever-mobile ensemble on stage delighted us again and again as we watched the classic story of how the man in power attempts to reclaim his right to deflower the maid Susanna, who is, of course, already betrothed. How can we not laugh when Count Almaviva, in tweed jacket and riding boots, is the lean and hungry-looking Quirijn de Lang, with something of Basil Fawlty about him, and when Richard Burkhard makes such an immensely likeable Figaro, almost a character from a television sitcom?

Quirijn de Lang (Almaviva), Richard Burkhard (Figaro) and Silvia Moi (Susanna) © Clive Barda
Quirijn de Lang (Almaviva), Richard Burkhard (Figaro) and Silvia Moi (Susanna)
© Clive Barda

Our first sight of the set (designed by Leslie Travers) is from the back. It is a huge flat which is twisted around to reveal an expanse of peeling leaf-green paper fitted with the essential doors. Its tatty state indicates the end of era – in this case a vaguely Edwardian one – but any political statements which might be picked out remain in the general background, as was the original intention of Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte. The stage trickery is overt, the theatrical cleverness relished: when Cherubino, well into the performance, hesitates before hiding behind the same old armchair, we are sharing a joke about the blocking.

Helen Sherman (Cherubino) © Clive Barda
Helen Sherman (Cherubino)
© Clive Barda
This is beautifully done by director Jo Davies, more elaborately than what is often considered necessary for the farce in this opera, and the timings are just right. When, in Act I, Figaro teasingly consigns Cherubino to the military life, in a subtly understated, well-sectioned rendition of the famous “Non più andrai”, Cherubino is gradually fitted out with cushion armour and chamber-pot helmet, and in Act III the weddings are immaculately organised, complete with bridesmaids perched on a rather dangerous-looking, decrepit staircase.

A lot of the production’s impact is owed to the witty, flexible translation of Jeremy Sams, first written for English National Opera. All previous versions now seem clunky in comparison. “You’ll be boring us rigid for hours,” Figaro accuses boozy Antonio (Jeremy Peaker), the gardener, who turns out to be a gruff Yorkshireman. Later, when he deals with mythological matters in Act IV, his register changes: he becomes a master of accommodation in line with the character’s craftiness.

Norwegian soprano Silvia Moi has all the required charm for Susanna, and is gloriously animated throughout, with apparently faultless delivery. Romanian soprano Ana Maria Labin has lovely, striking gravitas as the Countess in her impressive “Dove sono”, when she laments the loss of any pleasures in marriage – a glimpse of a dark side. Lang's Count could, perhaps, be just a touch more unpleasant, which could be difficult given the rather sweet quality of his baritone. Gaynor Keeble as housekeeper Marcellina is magnificent, properly catty in Act I and amply maternal in Act III. Don Curzio, the priest, is given quite a stage presence by Nicholas Watts: he is Orthodox, which adds a Russian (Chekhovian?) spice to the mix.

Quirijn de Lang (Count Almaviva) and Ana Maria Labin (Countess Almaviva) © Clive Barda
Quirijn de Lang (Count Almaviva) and Ana Maria Labin (Countess Almaviva)
© Clive Barda

The character which lingers in my mind the most, however, is the hilariously-hormoned Cherubino, the ultimate stage adolescent as played by Helen Sherman, who not only dashes and leaps about but who has a terrific, lush mezzo voice which brings a surprising elegance to the part. The scene in which she is dressed up, a boy disguised as a female, with a splendid corset and bonnet, was one of the evening’s comic high points.

The Orchestra of Opera North was at its best under conductor Alexander Shelley, with the Chorus in peak condition. All in all, this was a superbly entertaining evening, a Marriage of Figaro not to be missed.