Outwardly pretty, but mouldy on closer inspection, like a decaying box of bonbons. That’s the Almaviva household in Dutch National Opera’s Le nozze di Figaro. Although neither conductor Ivor Bolton nor director David Bösch plumbs any psychological depths, this season opener offers multiple delights. It is zippy, entertaining and looks good enough to eat. Most importantly, the cast is first-rate.

Rather than upper and lower classes at loggerheads, as in the politically incendiary Beaumarchais play on which the libretto is based, Bösch illustrates the relationship misery resulting from traditional constructs of masculinity and femininity. The characters are constrained by gender roles, rather than social status, the men led by lechery and jealousy, the women pleading and appeasing. They keep getting stuck in dysfunctional loops, played out as farcical sequences. Initially, these funny antics seem over-the-top. Figaro’s aspirant bride Marcellina (in reailty his mother) irons a hole into his actual fiancée’s wedding veil. Susanna retaliates by chasing after her with a spray bottle. As the absurdity heaps up, it becomes increasingly desperate and violent, underling how lonely everyone is, and culminating in the Count threatening the Countess with an axe and smashing the marital bed.

Thanks to Patrick Bannwart’s sets and Meentje Nielsen’s costumes, this war of the sexes unfolds on the prettiest of battlefields. The storybook aesthetic is Baroque (bewigged lackeys in seashell pink), retro-nostalgic (pastel typewriter) and high-tech contemporary (the Countess’ wall-to-wall, remote-controlled wardrobe). Susanna’s wedding dress appears to be cut from glacé icing and the peasants are immaculate in Victorian pleats. There are preserved love letters and other references to the backstory, as in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Such detail and subtext were absent in the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra’s playing, which was accomplished and comely enough. Ivor Bolton drove a gentle but brisk accompaniment that regularly, and somewhat predictably, detonated into exclamatory bursts. A plus during the snappy recitatives, the lively pace at times quashed lyricism, as in the introduction to the Countess’ depressive aria “Porgi, amor”. Once or twice the brass section sounded harried. No matter, because the singers, all of them also gifted actors, wiped away all reservations. 

Tyrannising everyone within the blighted walls of his castle, the sadistic Count’s only redeeming quality was Stéphane Degout’s consistently fantastic singing. His coffee-coloured baritone percolating with menace, Degout drew a disturbing portrait of a man with too much power, no purpose and no self-control. He minted gold in his big scene “Hai già vinta la causa!” and was silver-tongued in the recitatives, which were deftly punctuated by fortepiano and cello. So was his Countess, Eleonora Buratto, whose buttery soprano was an undiluted joy. Her aggrieved melancholy in the Countess’ lament for happier times, “Dove sono”, went straight to the heart. Bösch’s sympathy is firmly with the women and the page Cherubino, who has not yet subscribed to the mindless machismo of his superiors. He has Figaro and the Count incessantly flaring at each other like mad bulls, as if the opera’s subtitle were “Puffed-Up Dunderheads and the Women Who Love Them”. As sympathetic as her mistress, Christiane Karg’s Susanna looked like an attractive, sensible schoolteacher. Karg’s focused, biting soprano put across both Susanna’s pragmatism and her frustration with the menfolk. Wonderful performer that she is, her controlled sensuality made the nocturnal ballad “Deh, vieni non tardar” the highlight it deserves to be.

To witness Alex Esposito’s comic book Figaro, a drum of testosterone constantly threatening to reach boiling point, is to feel Susanna’s frustration. Esposito was musical, moved with clockwork timing, and sang powerfully. Maybe too powerfully to allow for nuance, but presumably he was directed that way. Towards the end Figaro’s sullen jealousy reduces him to such lows that one hopes Susanna will have the divorce papers ready before the wedding cake starts to go off.

With her satin mezzo and bright overtones, Marianne Crebassa was a delectable Cherubino. The embellishments in her arias were spare and well-judged. Additional youthful freshness poured from Louise Kemény who, as the ingénue Barbarina, displayed fine Mozartian style. Another stand-out in the supporting cast was Krystian Adam as Basilio, his dandyish schemer in every way a finished performance, not least vocally – a pity his aria remained on the cutting floor. Katherine Goeldner’s well-groomed Marcellina, theatrically robust but with vague Italian, was also denied her aria. Bass Umberto Chiummo was a visually striking Bartolo, but his gurgled low notes in “La vendetta” kept it from exploding with a big enough bang. Sandpaper-voiced Matteo Peirone made a convincing, sozzled gardener and the slender-voiced Jeroen de Vaal was another asset as Don Curzio, the judge with nerves of steel wool. The solo voices blended and contrasted beautifully in the trios and ensembles. Not surprisingly, in spite of the exquisitely sung reconciliation finale, no happy ending was within easy reach. Just more bitter bonbons.