The Salzburg Festival has seen over 20 productions of Le nozze di Figaro since 1922 and directors such as Walter Felsenstein, Günter Rennert, Michael Hampe and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle have all made memorable interpretations of Mozart’s masterwork. Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s latest exegesis can easily withstand comparisons to these legendary productions, in no small measure due to English set designer Alex Eales’ visually entertaining staging.

Anna Prohaska (Susanna) and Luca Pisaroni (Count Almaviva) © Salzburger Festspiele | Ruth Walz
Anna Prohaska (Susanna) and Luca Pisaroni (Count Almaviva)
© Salzburger Festspiele | Ruth Walz

Count Almaviva’s Palazzo Aguas-Frescas is transformed into a cross between a slightly down-market Downton Abbey and Queen Mary’s doll’s house. Split-level action in Acts I and III provide the opportunity to see into a number of rooms, and more importantly, what other characters are doing – which is usually up to no good. Peeping through keyholes, incessant eavesdropping, furtive snooping and rifling through others’ property is all part of daily life chez Almaviva. There is a huge amount of extraneous business throughout which is lots of fun but can also be distracting. Until Act IV, only the Countess’ “Dove sono” aria escapes non-textual superfluous action. The Count’s “Hai già vinta la causa!” recitative was sung in his wine cellar but at the same time showed a number of staff in the servants’ hall above having lunch. It was unclear what “Vedrò, mentr'io sospiro, felice un servo mio!’ had to do with the midday repast, unless the Almavivas had hired Gordon Ramsay to prepare the servants’ victuals.

The setting and costuming was clearly post-Edwardian and could have been anywhere from Sussex to Rutland. Where it definitely could not be is in Spain. This presented certain textual incongruities such as an amusing idea in Bartolo’s “La vendetta” aria. During the good doctor’s paroxysm, the Count is in his dressing room below, reading a newspaper with Bartolo’s visage splashed over the front page, thus validating “Tutta Siviglia conosce Bartolo”. This would be fine if the journal was El Pais or even The Times but confusingly it was Il Corriere della sera. On the other hand, there was excellent clarity of action in the often-confusing Feydeau-ish finale which is set in a slightly grubby conservatory.

Margarita Gritskova (Cherubino) and Anna Prohaska (Susanna) © Salzburger Festspiele | Ruth Walz
Margarita Gritskova (Cherubino) and Anna Prohaska (Susanna)
© Salzburger Festspiele | Ruth Walz

This was an extremely impressive ensemble performance of which Walter Felsenstein would have been proud. Some of the smaller roles were brilliantly played. Ann Murray was an absolutely outstanding Marcellina, particularly in the last act where the character is quite tipsy, having taken full advantage of the Count’s “ricca pompa”. A few perfectly timed hiccups during the “Presto, avvertiam Susanna” recitative were hilarious. On this occasion, the omission of Marcellina’s “Il capro e la capretta” aria was regrettable.

Christina Gansch’s Barbarina was a much more self-willed, tomboyish characterisation than usual. When she saves Cherubino’s skin in Act III with “Eccellenza, voi mi dite sì spesso” she certainly knew how to manipulate her “little kitten”. The short “L'ho perduta” cavatina opening Act IV was beautifully sung. This is a young soprano with a big future. Don Basilio was competently performed by Austrian tenor Paul Schweinester, although the characterization as a furtive, slightly hysterical Thomas Barrow was original to say the least. Margarita Gritskova was a charming and convincingly boyish Cherubino. This is a singer with considerable vocal skills but possibly at this stage still a “voice in progress”.

Anett Fritsch (Countess) © Salzburger Festspiele | Ruth Walz
Anett Fritsch (Countess)
© Salzburger Festspiele | Ruth Walz
As Figaro, Adam Plachetka displayed some very fine acting and impressive singing. This factotum is not unfailingly clever, but very human. There was real heartbreak and rage in “Aprite un po' quegli occhi”. Anna Prohaska has established quite a career since her Salzburg debut in 2008. Her cheerful but calmly prescient Susanna is reminiscent of Lucia Popp and her vocal abilities are arguably commensurate. Luca Pisaroni is becoming a definitive Count and in this production has a complex, credible character. Preening dandy, smug seducer and vengeful egoist are all part of the persona but this makes his ultimate plea for forgiveness all the more meaningful. Vocally Pisaroni has an impressive legato with refined phrasing and a strong top register.

Anett Fritsch must be the most glamourous countess since Kiri te Kanawa. Her stunning stage-presence is not yet quite equalled by her vocal prowess as there is often a tendency towards an intrusive fast vibrato which blurs the purity of the cantilena.

The most impressive musical aspect of the performance was the attention given to the recitatives. They were never rushed and did justice to Da Ponte’s witty libretto. Dan Ettinger led the Vienna Philharmonic in a measured reading which was both light and lyrical and had punch when required. Some interesting but unobtrusive ornamentation was added to “Dove sono” and “Non più andrai”. Ettinger’s inclusion of a few bars of the theme from “Downton Abbey” on the hammerklavier at the opening of Act III was certainly cheeky and caused much laughter.

This outstanding ensemble performance was not so much “une journée folle” as “une soirée hilarante”. Bravi tutti.