As an opera-goer born and raised in another country, one of the biggest surprises (though I should have expected it) on my first exposure to opera in London a few years ago was to realise how different the sense of the comic may be when you cross national borders. When I’d laugh, my fellow listeners wouldn’t; and when they did, I could hardly see why. Something similar, perhaps, to the cultural discontinuity that sets us apart from our historical predecessors, who would not necessarily have taken what we now deem ‘political’, ‘revolutionary’ operas (consider Verdi’s Nabucco, politically harmless in 1840s Italy) in the same way we do; and vice versa too. Meaning is shaped and shifts through time; artworks gather – always, without exception – a slowly-accrued yet continually changing referential baggage.  

Both shocks – mismatched comic reactions and different levels of sensitivity to political/class issues – occurred to me at the opening night of David McVicar’s celebrated production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, now on its sixth revival (since 2006) at the Royal Opera House. As those who attended before will know, the setting is (so we’re told) a French chateau in 1830 – McVicar’s updating of Mozart-Da Ponte’s 1786 plot of brewing sexual and antagonistic-class intrigues projecting the socio-political tensions of pre-revolutionary France onto the climate of 40 years later, preceding the so-called ‘bourgeois revolution’.

No doubt I am to blame if I find little which is seriously disruptive in both the opera and its rendering onstage. But being instructed that Le nozze happened and – more to the point – is still meant, in its current reinvention, to represent, too, those political tensions, my take on the issue is that these are fascinatingly nested in a number of scenic details: the play of insides set against outsides (the servants’ shabby room placed within a larger, imposing aristocratic hall in Act I); of doors of different sizes (small for the domestics and twice or three times as big for the nobility in Act II); of umber costumes (again in Act II) for the Count and the Countess, costumes that absorb the couple into the ambience of their possessions (the palace’s hall whose floor has the tints of its aristocratic occupants); and, of course, the female servant equipped with cloth and bucket fighting off everybody else to gain centre stage for herself alone just before the curtain falls. One could hardly ask for subtler metaphorical allusions.

The refinement of the production and the (traditional) designs, by Tanya McCallin, were matched, almost at all times, by the performance. Alex Exposito, as Figaro, gave a spirited, as well as sometimes aptly fierce, interpretation, perhaps only lacking weight in the lower register. Camilla Tilling, as his fiancée Susanna, sang with exquisite taste and control from the beginning to the end (she gave a beautiful performance of “Deh vieni, non tardar”).

Anna Bonitatibus was an energetic Cherubino, justly warmly acclaimed by the audience (although at moments she may have used a bit too much vibrato for some). Rebecca Evans’ Countess grew stronger as the performance ran on: her diction was problematic in her entrance aria “Porgi amor qualche ristoro”, but Evans provided some very touching moments later on, such as in her duettino with Susanna in Act III. Finally, Gerald Finley was a commanding Count Almaviva, whose musical as well as dramatic talents didn’t go unnoticed.

The rest of the cast and the orchestra, led by David Syrus, who’d conducted McVicar’s Le nozze three times before, were mostly convincing by all standards. A handful of moments of stage-pit loss of coordination did occur, as well as a number of occasions (at the beginning) when the orchestra seemed to be playing slightly too loudly. But, nitpicking aside, the charms and richness of the opera and its present revival remain intact.