An unedifying battle of the knights opened this revival of the Royal Opera’s stylish Le nozze di Figaro. Sir John Eliot Gardiner drives a hard overture and his battering-ram tempo forced Sir David McVicar’s carefully choreographed supernumeraries to scuttle through their below-stairs dumb-show to get it done in time. More seriously, the opening performance of this run was prone to lapses of ensemble between stage and pit as the rush appeared to run them all ragged. Mozart’s opera thrives on relaxed comic interaction, as Gardiner himself showed in his Paris account a quarter of a century ago; but here he kept things tense, apparently unconcerned that on such a big stage the singers need space to act.

Simon Keenlyside (Count Almaviva) and Julia Kleiter (Countess)
© ROH | Mark Douet

The production’s third knight, Sir Simon Keenlyside, cut a suitably aristocratic figure in Almaviva’s brocade housecoat and inhabited the conflicted Count with greater clarity than anyone else I’ve seen in this production. His interpretation favoured the shoulder with the devil on it, hence he spent most of the evening in blood-vessel-bursting mode, but it always felt psychologically truthful and even his baleful “Hai già vinta la causa” allowed for a grain of sympathy.

Secondary roles were cast not just from strength but from Class A talent, with Diana Montague and Maurizio Muraro a splendidly musical Marcellina and Bartolo and the French high tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt a characterful Don Basilio. Also notable was Alasdair Elliott, fresh from Witch duties in Regent’s Park, whose Don Curzio contributed an eloquent top line to the “Riconosci in questo amplesso” sextet in Act 3.

Joélle Harvey (Susanna) and Christian Gerhaher (Figaro)
© ROH | Mark Douet

This Nozze has several USPs, none more widely anticipated than the role debut of Christian Gerhaher as Figaro. On paper this is dream casting, but sadly the disappointment of the baritone’s Don Giovanni in Bamberg was replicated, albeit to a lesser extent, in a curious lack of lyricism and a tendency to bark instead of sing when his character was impassioned. His sober, businesslike Figaro possessed none of the humour that the likes of Erwin Schrott have brought to this production, and at times it failed to cross the footlights.

The same cannot be said of Kangmin Justin Kim as Cherubino. While he’s not the first countertenor to essay this female trouser role, the Korean-American’s musical solidity and infectious personality instantly convinced and he will have made many converts to the idea – albeit not among mezzo-sopranos. It is certainly not stunt casting. His nervous entry into “Voi che sapete” was enough to melt the heart, and his devotion to Barbarina was only spoilt by the girlish squeaks the soprano Yaritza Véliz had been directed to include.

Kangmin Justin Kim (Cherubino)
© ROH | Mark Douet

Where Thomas Guthrie’s latest revival of McVicar’s 2006 original really scores is in the divine partnership of Joélle Harvey as Susanna and Julia Kleiter as the Countess. I’ve rarely heard such an exquisitely matched pair of sopranos in these roles, and their third-act duet “Sull’aria” made time stand still. Harvey’s voice is a ravishing instrument that never ceases to impress, nowhere more than in the final act with a deliciously poised “Deh vieni”. Her German counterpart, meanwhile, was making her Royal Opera debut and she shone like the sun, perhaps a shade too bright and crisp in “Dove sono” but heart-melting in “Porgi amor”. Yet Kleiter’s most poignant moment was non-vocal. It occurred as the Countess tenderly stroked the cheek of a disguised Cherubino… and for a brief moment there stood before us the Marschallin and her cherished Octavian. That was pure magic.