Less than six months after it was unveiled as the Royal Opera's contribution to the Mozart anniversary celebrations, David McVicar's staging of Figaro is back at Covent Garden. The cast is almost entirely new and the show has been revived by Stéphane Marlot with a superb eye for the period detail that makes the production so satisfying. McVicar's shift of the action to a French chateau on the eve of the 1830 revolution, to a community that appears not to have absorbed the significance of the 1789 one, makes perfect dramatic sense.
What makes it really special this time around, though, is the conducting. It is more than 20 years since Colin Davis last tackled Figaro in this house, and his account of the score is a reminder of his qualities as a Mozart interpreter. If there are long stretches of this performance when his contribution goes unnoticed, it's because it is so seamlessly matched. When he does intervene - to steer the second-act finale, or to pull the dramatic strings at the end of the opera - it is done with perfect judgement.
Stylistically, Davis's approach is old-school, warmly expressive, and often quite nostalgically slow, but it is wonderfully effective and the cast prospers. The only disappointments come at its very centre, with Isabel Bayrakdarian's Susannah, who is winsome and lacking vocal allure, and with Kyle Ketelsen's rather anonymous Figaro, though he finds a real personality in the final act. The rest, though, is very high-class. Soile Isokoski sings both the Countess's arias ravishingly, while Michael Volle's Count is genuinely imposing and psychologically intriguing. Sophie Koch's Cherubino is refined and restrained, while Diana Montague (Marcellina), Robert Lloyd (Bartolo), John Graham Hall (Basilio), and Jeremy White (Antonio) provide wonderfully detailed support. It may not be the funniest Figaro you'll ever see, but it is one of the most thoughtful and musically rewarding.
4 stars, Royal Opera House, London. In rep until July 9. Box office: 020-7304 4000
Andrew Clement's reminds us in today's Guardian that musical greatness is possible without self-promotion, and also without Askonas Holt.
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