Entering the Norwegian National Opera for their season opener of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, I imagined it would be a pretty conventional production and was hoping for some good singing. Turns out, I was only partly right.

Figaros Bryllup © Erik Berg
Figaros Bryllup
© Erik Berg

As the overture started, the curtains opened and showed Count Almaviva’s castle: a collection of rooms set on a rotating stage, showing the daily activities of the Almaviva household; servants doing their daily tasks, the Count having maybe a little too much fun with Barbarina, the Countess behind the curtains in her four-poster bed. It all looked and felt much like a so-called “traditional” production, with period costumes and sets reminiscent of the 18th century splendidly designed by Kevin Knight. This feeling of traditionalism was very much present all through the first three acts, only to be thrown out the window completely right before the fourth and final act: as Figaro and Susanna are about to get married, footlights appear and a curtain and painted flats are lowered from the ceiling, separating the singers and the chorus, the new audience.

Director Thaddeus Strassberger seems to have a penchant for several things happening on stage at once. This functions primarily to give fragmented little glimpses into certain characters, and often serves an illustrative purpose, like the Count having his way with a servant girl in the first act while Figaro and Susanna are singing about his rampant infidelity at the same time. Other times, characters remain in the background, allowing the audience to focus on only the important characters; like Susanna leaving Cherubino and the Countess alone in the second act. Thus, “Voi che sapete” is delivered without the on-stage accompaniment allowing for a very intimate moment between the Countess and Cherubino, with Susanna merely observing from afar.

As preparations are made for the wedding, just before Act IV, a set of curtains and painted flats are lowered down onto the stage, making it all less a wedding and more a pageant. Put on to keep the new audience, the chorus, content? Several troupes of various entertainers appear in fanciful costumes, disappearing one by one behind the curtain to rapturous applause. Having supplied the servants with bread, it is now time for circus, a point made even more apparent by the stage turning into a full-blown Baroque theatre for the garden scene.

The singing was or the most part excellent, but perhaps the greatest vocal performance of the evening came from Marita Sølberg’s Countess, a touching portrayal with a heartbreaking “Dove sono” in the third act. Her tone is distinct, almost glass-like, and very affecting. Silvia Moi’s Susanna was not as well sung, but she more than made up for it with a vivid portrayal of the maid. Ingeborg Gillebo’s Cherubino was another vocal highlight, even though she was slightly hampered by a rather too slow tempo in her Act I aria. Still, her gorgeous, full voice overcame the sagging tempo, even though “Non so più cosa son” lacked some urgency. Yngve Søberg’s Figaro was well sung, although more nuance would have been nice at times and he occasionally turned blustery. I would also have preferred him to do more with the words, not only being content with singing beautifully. Espen Langvik’s Count proved yet another highlight, both vocally and dramatically, his voice deftly used to characterise the Count, providing a range of colours, from unashamedly seductive to all-consuming ire during Act II.

Perhaps the most satisfactory element of this production, however, was the attention given to the individual characters, with strikingly three-dimensional portrayals of Susanna, Cherubino and the Countess. In an opera with characters which can easily turn into stock caricatures, it was nice to see the characters as more human than commedia-like archetypes. An especially welcome touch was the very obviously reciprocal attraction between the Countess and Cherubino, not a mere teenage infatuation, but an obvious attraction between them both. That is not to say there weren’t elements of caricature present in some of the characters. Especially the characters of Marcellina and Bartolo were presented as something more akin to villains in a comic book in the first act, before going straight into loving parent mode in Act 3. The Count could perhaps have done with a little less brooding anger, but Espen Langvik still did an excellent job of portraying the Count as a scheming womaniser.

Thaddeus Strassberger’s production of Le nozze di Figaro offers a seemingly “traditional” production of Mozart’s masterpiece, but instead of being held back by convention, he offers an at times startlingly new and often revelatory update, while keeping the piece firmly in the time we’re used to seeing it. Paired with gorgeous singing and detailed, nuanced character portrayals, it proved a most excellent evening at the opera.

*****