New Zealand Opera’s new production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro represents the company’s single foray into the “traditional” repertoire for 2021, having been postponed from the 2020 season due to last year’s Covid-19 restrictions. It is a production well worth waiting for, as the refreshing direction and production and wonderful ensemble cast and a production that brought the masterpiece to life to a rare extent.

Richard Ollarsaba (Figaro)
© David Rowland

Tracy Grant Lord's sets consisted of a versatile series of panels that could be arranged and rearranged to suit each scene. Expertly lit, they were equally adept at serving as the walls of a courtly bedroom or the dark maze-like forest of the final act. Sometimes they were skilfully moved in the middle of scenes to suggest a difference of mental state of the principals, as in when the walls closed in on Figaro and Susanna at the same time as their wedding was threatened in the second act finale. The costumes seemed mostly non-specifically “period” (perhaps 18th-century, the time of the opera’s premiere) with the occasional modern-day business suit or dress thrown in.

Within this, Lindy Hume’s direction was a constant delight. There are many complex exits, entrances and interactions in this tale of mistaken identity and these always just felt effortless. This sense of effortlessness obviously rubbed off on the singers also, as they gave one of the most natural ensemble performances I’ve seen on the operatic stage. Many details which could be hackneyed (such as the Count discovering Cherubino hidden in Susanna’s basket) were legitimately hilarious thanks to the smooth direction and the artless reactions of the cast. Behind the slapstick and fun, they were also all complicated individuals with legitimate feelings that revealed themselves at key moments to make the performance that much more moving.

John Moore (Count Almaviva) and Joanna Foote (Susanna)
© David Rowland

As all good Cherubinos should, Bianca Andrew came close to stealing the show with her gorgeously honeyed mezzo voice and an irresistible sense of spontaneity, every inch the adolescent boy as she passionately delivered her two arias – no wonder the Countess fell into Cherubino’s arms after “Voi che sapete”. John Moore was a most engaging Count Almaviva, taking full advantage of every opportunity he had on stage, at turns smooth-toned and seductive, petulant, enraged and sarcastic. In addition to being an acting tour de force, he was also vocally on point, his warm, rich baritone negotiating the twisting turns of his aria most adeptly. As his long-suffering wife, Emma Pearson was initially reserved but showed a playful side in the scenes with Cherubino. She shaped the difficult “Dove sono” with superb control and elegant phrasing, suggesting the misery of a deeply unhappy woman who yet, in her social position, has to keep it together.

Emma Pearson (Countess) and Bianca Andrew (Cherubino)
© David Rowland

Susanna (Joanna Foote) and Figaro (Richard Ollarsaba) were most charming as the central pair. Foote’s voice, silvery and sweet, shone out in the many tricky ensemble passages and yet was also well-suited to her languid last-act aria. She also played the feisty Susanna to the tee, being the agent through which the whole plot really turns. Ollarsaba similarly played superbly off the other characters and sang with healthy resonance and smooth tone throughout, changing noticeably from jovial (if sometimes clueless) trickster to a deeper, sympathetic character in his angry scene in Act 4. The remaining cast members also gave superbly drawn characterisations, with Kristin Darragh’s bitchy Marcellina and Imogen Thirlwall’s tipsy Barbarina’s being particular highlights.

Emma Pearson (Countess), Joanna Foote (Susanna) and Richard Ollarsaba (Figaro)
© David Rowland

Zoe Zeniodi led a largely speedy account of the score which matched the energy and verve of the cast. Only sometimes did it feel like the singers could have benefited from more spacious tempi; the Countess’ Act 1 aria and the Letter Duet, for example, though beautiful, felt a tad rushed. The musical highlights were the long finales of the second and fourth acts; Zeniodi tied together all of the musical threads easily, highlighting key individual vocal and instrumental details and bringing each of these to an exciting conclusion. Despite the rather dead acoustics of the Kiri te Kanawa Theatre, Mozart’s ravishing woodwind details were particularly brought to the fore. The score was given complete aside from Marcellina’s and Don Basilio’s oft-cut arias. Interestingly, almost all singers added their own touches of ornamentation to repeats and cadential points, sometimes surprising but always tastefully done.