Michael Portillo - Happy ending

Opera - A revived production of Mozart that came close to perfection. By Michael Portillo

Le No

In 1998, New York's Metropolitan Opera staged a new production of Le Nozze di Figaro with a glorious cast that included Bryn Terfel as Figaro and Cecilia Bartoli as Susanna. The recent revival employed singers who are less well known, but it none the less came close to being a perfect night at the opera.

The design team, under Jonathan Miller, presented a visually stunning production. The sets by Peter Davison were full of gorgeous 18th-century architectural detail. The room that Figaro and Susanna will share (in which the count hopes to meet her after she is married) was vast but shabby, its beige colours providing a perfect backdrop to the subdued pastels of James Acheson's costumes. In Act II, the countess's bedroom was washed in pink, while she wore a far stronger version of the same colour.

While the action continued, the third act transformed into the fourth by a breathtaking slow rotation of the set, which took us from the interior of the palace to its exterior. There is no break in time between the two acts; instead, the light faded gradually to darkness for the final garden scene. Mark McCullough's lighting was superb, his illusion of night enabling the audience to believe that the characters could not recognise each other even though we could see them easily.

The confusions of that final act were handled superbly, making sense of shenanigans that are often muddling. It helped that Susanna was by now wearing a distinctive palace uniform, so that when the countess disguised herself in Susanna's costume, it was just about credible that the amorous count was deceived into wooing his own wife. When the countess emerged from hiding to reveal the charade and forgive her husband, she appeared in a magnificent sparkling white dress, a colour not seen in the production until then.

The choreography of Terry John Bates and stage director Robin Guarino was also remarkable. Mozart's arias and long ensembles are a challenge. What can the characters do to keep moving without becoming absurd? This production team always found answers, guiding the singers into actions that appeared unforced.

I will long remember this production for gathering a cast that in every case looked the part completely. John Relyea is a young baritone who is having a good season at the Met and has been heard at Covent Garden and the Edinburgh Festival. He is very tall, with a stage presence well beyond his years. No wonder Susanna would want to marry such a handsome Figaro. Mariusz Kwiecien (who has sung at Glyndebourne and is debuting at Covent Garden) was no less attractive as the count. He first appeared in Susanna's room with long black curls flowing loosely about his shoulders, a seducer who is dangerous because he is desirable. Both men sang excellently.

Andrea Rost made a very pretty Susanna, singing especially well the aria in which she torments Figaro by pretending that she is longing for the count. Janice Watson's countess had clearly matured since the heady days when the count's heart first raced for her, but she was highly attractive. She showed delightful tenderness during her flirtation with Cherubino in Act II, and was magnificent in each of her two arias lamenting her husband's faithlessness, as well as in the moment of forgiveness that ends the opera.

The Puerto Rican mezzo-soprano Jossie Perez made a great Cherubino. She has the height and figure to play the adolescent youth, and her walk was unfailingly macho. She won cheers for her lovesick arias "Non so piu" and "Voi, che sapete".

The acting was of a very high standard, and the comedy very well done. The Met has seat-back titles, which help a lot. Even though short-sighted people such as me have to use spectacles to read them, they have the advantage over surtitles above the stage. Sonya Friedman's English text was informal and hilarious. It has to be gratifying for the performers when the audience is helpless with laughter.

There is more good news, this time from the pit. When I was last at the Met, for a Ring cycle last year, there was talk that James Levine was suffering from an illness that reduces his movement on one side of the body, making it difficult for the orchestra to read his direction. On this occasion, he loomed above the pit to conduct the overture, displaying great vigour with both arms, and the orchestra was under firm control throughout.

When everything goes right like this, you can relax and enjoy Mozart's genius. When the set, costumes, lighting, singers, singing and music are all beautiful, you can devote your senses to appreciating the wonder of the tunes and the orchestration, and this opera's brilliant plot. The comic twists are so well devised and the piece's structure is a thing of wonder. The struggle between the sexes, and the classes, was never better represented.

Such a perfect experience at the opera is rare, but when it happens, little else in life stands comparison.

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Can free trade be fair trade?