There are of course genuine problem operas - Parsifal, La Forza del Destino, Ariadne auf Naxos, La Rondine - works whose structure or subject matter is so unwieldy as to tax the most inventive of directors. But then there's a work like The Marriage of Figaro, problematic in an entirely different way. As director Fiona Shaw herself acknowledges, Mozart's storytelling and musical drama are so tightly, so minutely synchronised as to leave a director little to do, and almost no room to manoeuvre. Yet by inhabiting the silences and gaps, those inevitable operatic offcuts, Shaw finds her solution, successfully claiming her own space within this greatest of operas.
We open with a witty little trick, a piece of playful artifice that sets the tone for proceedings. A lone harpsichord stands to the fore of the stage. As the orchestra fussily and self-consciously tune we, along with Don Basilio become aware that a bee is buzzing about. He traps the offending creature within the harpsichord and its muted and angry frettings become the string scales of the overture. Smug, perhaps, but it's the kind of joke that can only emerge from loving familiarity with the score, and if in this production Shaw allows the textural minutiae to overbalance the broader arc of the opera, it's an issue well worth risking.
Baumarchais's dichotomies of upstairs and below-stairs, of master and servant, become part of a single fluid continuum in Shaw's vision of Almaviva's kingdom. Her set - a white maze of walls and staircases - sits on a revolve, and as the plot entangles its characters so the rotations of the set embrace them into an ever-shifting Escher-designed domain of false exits and hidden staircases. And the minotaur within the maze? The Count himself (a vocally slightly unfocused Roland Wood) of course, a blood-and-flesh sort of man, whose lackeys invade the Countess's dressing room complete with the trussed spoils of the hunt.
There are some practical issues to Shaw's setup however; ensemble suffers from the breathless intricacy of the movement, and both the Act I finale and the garden denouement which were still shuddering a week into the run.
Balancing the stylised set and the deliberate anachronisms so beloved of ENO productions, are details of characterisation that give the work the specificity it needs. A crafty Figaro, whose pen is truly mightier than his master's sword, Iain Paterson gives us wry comedy with just enough violence suppressed within it. While his Don Giovanni last season never quite settled, here among the heavy symbolism of the endless ram's skulls (one of which he shaves in an inspired Sweeney Todd-esque rendition of "Se vuol ballare") his masculinity in beyond question, bringing the best from Jeremy Sams' translation - truly a thing of beauty and a timely justification for ENO's opera-in-English policy.
While the press night audience saw Elizabeth Llewellyn stepping in at short notice (by all accounts superbly) for an indisposed Kate Valentine, her success should not obscure the tender and immensely moving reading Valentine herself gives. By turns imperious mistress and victim, her "Dove sono", though hustled by conductor Paul Daniel's swift speeds along with "Che soave zeffiretto", ran a velvet-gloved finger through an open wound - its masochistic beauty unmatched for thrills during the evening.
Devon Guthrie's Susanna is also a delight, full of character and with an unobtrusive power behind the lyric prettiness of her voice. Kathryn Rudge's Cherubino by contrast was all rough edges and lack of loveliness - a claret drunk too young - but came off best when sparring with Mary Bevan's deliciously feckless Barbarina.
There is so much that is good here: Daniel's recitative accompaniments are as rich in harmonic inference and they are spare in texture; foreground characters emerge with clarity, set in relief against the monochrome bustle of Shaw's faceless domestics. The whole achieves a quiet menace that keeps a contrary current running through even the smoothest moments of Mozart's opera. Shaw's opera and Mozart's do occasionally find themselves jostling for supremacy among the bustle of detail and action, but these small skirmishes may yet find themselves satisfactorily resolved in revival.