If Count Almaviva (to say nothing of Don Giovanni) were alive today, he might perhaps enlist Richard Dawkins to defend his behaviour. We know from evolutionary biology that the male stands the best chance of passing on his genes if he has many partners, the female if she can keep the male around to help raise the children he’s had with her. Marxists, meanwhile, will tell you that enforced monogamy is all about ensuring the preservation of capital, thus maintaining the separation of the classes, and whatever else can be said of Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro, it has both of these conflicts in spades. And if Peter Shaffer shows Mozart promising the Emperor that he (or rather Da Ponte) has taken all the politics out of the play, director David McVicar seems determined to put it back in.

Maria Bengtsson as Countess Almaviva; Christopher Maltman as Count Almaviva © ROH / Douet
Maria Bengtsson as Countess Almaviva; Christopher Maltman as Count Almaviva
© ROH / Douet

As the curtain rises, Tanya McCallin gives us the kind of set that gets a round of applause before anyone’s sung a note, though McVicar doesn’t leave it empty for long – the bustling overture accompanies (with a good dollop of Mickey-Mousing) an army of servants as they go about their business at the start of a new day. When the action proper begins, a new set slides on from the wings to stand for the mean (but conveniently located) room the Count has given his servants for their wedding night, thus getting around the problem that it would be ridiculous for this room to be the size of the Royal Opera House stage. Figaro has a pair of the Count’s boots to polish, and it’s to them that he addresses “Se vuol ballare” – a nice touch – when he realises his master’s dastardly plan. However, to my mind there’s too much aimless stomping around in the scene leading up to this – less would definitely be more here.

In the next scene we meet Maria Bengtsson’s Contessa (replacing the advertised Rebecca Evans), languishing in another sumptuous set. She has the sort of light and agile voice that would traditionally be cast as Susanna, and perhaps it was surprise more than anything else that led to the lack of applause after her “Porgi amor”. Whatever the reason, it goaded her to dare some whisper-quiet pianissimos in “Dove sono”, which rightly received an ovation and won her the loudest applause at the curtain call.

Her Susanna was the even more Susanna-like Lucy Crowe. Hers is a beautiful voice, though it tended to stand out unnecessarily in the ensembles – perhaps a little more thought needs to be given to balance generally. (Sadly the one occasion this wasn’t true was during “O dolce contento”, when Alasdair Elliott’s Don Curzio barked over Susanna’s melody, surely one of the most beautiful in all opera.) However, all was forgiven when it came to “Deh, vieni, non tardar” – just once every so often with this aria, you see what all the fuss is about.

Christopher Maltman’s Count Almaviva was vocally and dramatically excellent, and McVicar’s direction of him leaves you in no doubt that the game he and Figaro are playing is for keeps – we see him slap his wife’s face and throw an axe violently to the ground – though I confess I’m not sure what McVicar intends by having everyone arrive on stage while the Count is still singing his aria, then retire discreetly to let him finish it.

John Eliot Gardiner in the pit managed to draw a surprisingly period sound from the Royal Opera House orchestra, proof if it were needed that authentic performance is as much as matter of articulation as playing on historically accurate instruments. I suspect the singers had been asked to be similarly authentic in their style, which in the case of Luca Pisaroni’s Figaro led to a certain lack of line, though it was an enjoyably characterful performance.

Amongst the smaller roles, Renata Pokupic sang beautifully as Cherubino, as did Mary Bevan as Barbarina, and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt was hilarious as Don Basilio. The chorus sounded surprisingly under-rehearsed in music which can hardly be unfamiliar to them. McVicar daintily ends with the same ageing skivvy with mop and bucket who opened the show, who seems almost to curtsey to us as she lowers herself to the floor she’s about to polish. A mad day indeed.