The legend that The Marriage of Figaro provoked the French Revolution would never have arisen had 1780s productions been as aimless as Opera Australia’s latest offering. Director Neil Armfield has confined the antagonism between aristocrat and servant to individuals. He glimpses “the more than usual force” that Count Almaviva applies not only to his wife. The count has all the discreet charms of his class, including savagery. His life may be idle but his threats are not.

Armfield splatters the first Act with music hall ribaldry instead of taking his cue from the wit that informs both da Ponte’s text and Mozart’s score. A few closing seconds of anguish are thus the more affecting, but they also highlight what has been missing: intelligent feelings.

The knock-about tone misleads the cast, many of which, especially the principals, are in need of help. Each had moments which led one to hope that they have been warming up. These passages are rarely more than passages.

Jeffrey Black as Count Almaviva seeks to seduce by exposing his chest. Once this flashing fails, he kicks his bare legs in the air like Esther Williams. Throughout, he smiles like Peter Costello. These devices do nothing to direct attention from the ordinariness of his baritone, which runs out of puff in his aria of self-reflection. At the final curtain, we know that the count will soon be philandering again but he must convince us that he has some nobility if we are to believe that the countess should have been given such heavenly music to express her forgiveness. That he approaches this state is his triumph over the production.

Leanne Kenneally as the Countess looks the part of the neglected wife. Her “Piorgi amor” should be breathtaking to hear, not to sing.

Although Douglas McNicol, in the title role, wisely paces his anger against being in service, he does not reach the extremes that even Figaro’s limited character experiences when he fears betrayal. His voice is firmer the lower it goes.

Figaro’s intended, the maid Susanna, deserves to be the smartest person on stage. Clare Gormley makes things happen but with an insouciance appropriate to the page Cherubino. Her voice is bright, her articulation precise, her movements vivacious, and all are sustained across three hours.

Tiffany Speight’s Cherubino opens delightfully, with fluid lines and lovely intonation. Her great moment in Act II, ‘Voi che sapete’, is thus more of a disappointment with its uncertain ornamentation. Her vocal difficulty is not alleviated by stage movements which accentuate that she is a girl in pants. The female singer’s pretence at a martial stride is indistinguishable from her boy character’s mince as a masquerade girl.

For the older woman, Marcellina, the comic timing of Margaret Haggart is pointed in recitative but in her aria she soars and plummets between splendour and inaudibility.

So accustomed are OA audiences to Conal Coad’s talents that we are in danger of taking them for granted, or of supposing that comedy must be easier than tragedy. The truth is that the company could simplify its auditions by putting this question to their would-be principals: if you cannot match Mr Coad’s vocal and dramatic abilities, are you sure that you have chosen the right career?

As Dr Bartolo, Coad integrates singing with gestures so that the ludicrous is at once funny and touching. His bass touches bottom as surely as it does our hearts.

The Basilio (and Curzio) by Geoffrey Harris add distinction to the minor characters just as Roger Howell’s drunken gardener Antonio supplies more than can be expected from a vignette.

Simone Young’s conducting keeps up the desired pace, bringing forth instrumental detail. Indeed, the opera’s shifts between sparkle and menace are clearer in the pit than on stage. The playing for the three successive ensembles that end Act II allows Mozart to abduct us from tedium.

The brown-paper look of the sets and the drab of the costumes by Dale Ferguson are reminders that late Eighteenth-century Spanish aristocrats were on their uppers.

Lighting the night scene in the garden has to balance the illumination that  the audience needs to follow the plot against the gloom required to make the run of mistaken identities credible. Why does Barbarina need a candle to search for her pin when Rory Dempster has lit the stage so brightly?

This excess of light would be a problem had Neil Armfield realized the comic possibilities in the culmination to this “crazy day”.