GENEVA (Reuters Life!) - In the Zurich Opera House's version of "The Marriage of Figaro", the eternal truths of the war of the sexes and class conflict are never far from the surface in a production that plays up the farcical nature and comedy of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's masterpiece.
Director Sven-Eric Bechtolf sets the piece in the 1930s, with the more modern-dress staging underlining the idea that the classic tale of love, desire, faithfulness, faithlessness -- and cross-dressing -- is one for every generation.
At the same time conductor Christopher Hogwood, one of the leading lights of the early music movement, produces an authentic sound that would not have sounded strange to Mozart.
Mozart's opera, based on a play by French dramatist Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, draws on many comic traditions, from master-servant comedies to Enlightenment dramas pitting men against women.
But Mozart's genius combines the farce and rococo frivolity with an intense humanity, brought out by Swedish soprano Malin Hartelius, who earns an ovation with her rendition of the great third-act aria "Dove sono", where the neglected countess wonders what has happened to her straying husband's love for her.
Beaumarchais's play, premiered in Paris in 1784, is often cited as one of the heralds of the French Revolution five years later, because of the way the wily servant Figaro stands up for his rights and refuses to let his master, Count Almaviva, take advantage of his bride Susanna, just because he is a nobleman.
But Bechtolf says that in his view Figaro is not trying to bring down the ruling class but simply ensure his own advance.
"Figaro is fighting for both his personal happiness and social status," he said in a programme note. "He and the count are not only in opposition as representatives of different social classes but are also competing with each other as men, as rival machos."
Swiss baritone Ruben Drole does indeed add a macho strain to the usual warm and humorous characterization of Figaro, dominating the stage and barely suppressing his rage at the count.
In a slightly puzzling move, Bechtolf makes the count an amateur conjurer, pulling flowers out of handkerchiefs and playing card tricks, as well as a sleazy lounge lizard.
That certainly reinforces the split-second timing of the comedy. But the count, sung by German baritone Michael Volle, is no magician controlling the fates of the other characters.
Instead, he is outwitted by Figaro, Susanna -- sung by Czech soprano Martina Jankova -- and the countess, and in Mozart's uplifting denouement learns after a series of humiliations to love and respect his wife and not chase after the servants.
Editing by Paul Casciato