Royal Academy Opera is the public face of the Royal Academy of Music’s postgraduate opera course and gives young singers on the cusp of a professional career the full experience of performing to the highest standards before an audience. In this respect there is very little to distinguish its qualities from the national opera companies performing across the UK week in, week out and with whom, with any luck, the students will be singing before long. RAO is currently without a home, while its theatre at the Academy is being upgraded, so this year it finds itself on the road, with this first production of the season, Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, landing at the Hackney Empire. As always, the production is double-cast, with two complete teams of singers alternating over a compact run of four nights, and it is the first-night cast reviewed here (apologies, therefore, to the rival cast, which I’m sure is just as worthy of coverage, but a date had to be chosen).

Božidar Smiljanic (Figaro) © Robert Workman
Božidar Smiljanic (Figaro)
© Robert Workman

It says something of the quality of tutoring and mentoring at the Academy that such rounded, fully developed characterisations and vocal maturity are present in singers in their 20s. At a professional level, a bass or baritone will have had to work their way up through the ranks before being gifted the role of Figaro or of the Count. That Božidar Smiljanić already embodies the barber-turned-manservant, leaping around the stage with relish and singing with both flair and subtlety, is impressive. And Henry Neill coupled the bewilderment of the aristocrat who is being setup by his underlings with an appropriate sense of nobility and self-importance, and his singing had grandeur and class of its own.

Charlotte Schoeters (Susanna) © Robert Workman
Charlotte Schoeters (Susanna)
© Robert Workman
Charlotte Schoeters’ zesty Susanna seemed to be on top of the situation from the start – no mere soubrette here – and the role was sung with warmth, wit and panache. As the Countess, Emily Garland captured the character’s melancholy perfectly, with a heartfelt “Porgi amor” in Act II and a seering, subtly inflected “Dove sono” that rightly won the most enthusiastic applause of the evening. I hope mezzo Katherine Aitken won’t be offended if I observe that she makes one of the most convincingly boyish Cherubinos I’ve seen, channelling the teenager’s adolescent fervour and social clumsiness with a performance that was fleet-footed and energetically sung. Timothy Murphy’s Dr Bartolo and Claire Barnett-Jones’ Marcellina ably played older without it looking arch, and all the smaller roles – John Porter’s Basilio, Alex Otterburn’s Antonio, Lorena Paz Nieto’s Barberina and Mikhail Shepelenko’s Don Curzio – were taken with equal distinction.

Taking on her first opera, veteran actor/director Janet Suzman relocates the story from Seville to Havana in the 1950s (“Oh, please not frilly old eighteenth-century Seville again,” she writes in an explanatory note in the programme), as the tensions that would lead to Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s Cuban revolution are brewing. Fotini Dimou’s straightforward but flexible set suggests Cuba’s faded colonial heritage with flair, and it is atmospherically lit by Jake Wiltshire. One can accept a few liberties with the libretto (substituting “Havana” for “Sivilgia”), but nothing ever makes disco-ing to Mozart’s ‘fandango’ in the Act III finale, even 1950s vintage, seem anything other than embarrassing.

Royal Academy Opera's <i>Figaro</i> © Robert Workman
Royal Academy Opera's Figaro
© Robert Workman

Otherwise the relocation is subtle but telling. The chorus of servants, for instance, seem unafraid to show their impatience with the upper class, singing “Cantiamo, lodiamo sì saggio signor!” (We sing, we praise such a wise lord!) to Count Almaviva through gritted teeth and with raised fists at the end of Act III. Suzman, though, seems less interested in Figaro’s class conflict per se than where it intersects with the battle of the sexes, and the opera’s dissection of a society where a man can use his status to have his way with whomsoever he chooses offers her the opportunity to reveal the power the women in the story hold over their menfolk. Right to the very last bars: the Countess duly forgives her husband for his past misdemeanours before handing him back her wedding ring and bravely walking out of his life as the curtain falls. An unexpectedly dark ending for a staging that elsewhere had milked the laughs, even at times to pantomimic extreme, though Suzman’s direction of character was always astute and detailed and was vividly projected by the young, talented cast. With the Royal Academy’s finest instrumentalists in the pit – some beautiful wind playing in particular – and the experience of one of our most esteemed Mozartians at the helm – Jane Glover, the Academy’s director of opera – the musical rewards, too, were both searching and serene.