What do you go to the opera for? The question has a thousand answers, but if you're going to Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, the chances are that you're expecting some frothy romantic comedy, some elegant music and a bunch of tunes that will stay in your head when the show is over. But on a good day, it can be so much more than that, and Bruno Ravella's production for Hampstead Garden Opera pulls out all the stops.

Mozart's music lends itself well to the reduced format of conductor/continuo plus thirteen musicians (broadly speaking, one of each instrument). Oliver-John Ruthven conjured up a marvellous performance: brisk and upbeat but never overpowering for the comedy, airy and impossibly romantic for the slower melodic passages. For sheer musicality, I can't remember enjoying the music as much in any sized opera house.

Just about any theatregoer will be familiar with the idea of comic relief, whereby the dark moods of a tragedy are brought into contrast by moments of comedy embedded within, serving to make the tragedy all the more poignant. Figaro contains the opposite – tragic relief, you might call it – in which a breathlessly rumbustious farce is interrupted by moments of music which lift your soul. It may be the umpteenth time that I've heard the Countess's Porgi, amor and Cherubino's Voi che sapete, but both still brought tears to my eyes.

Leaving aside such interludes, the backbone of Figaro is high energy farce. Director Bruno Ravella went for a straightforward staging which made remarkable use of the limited space: a screen was dressed with different backdrops to morph between rooms of masters and servants; a scattering of furniture and few props filled in the remainder; costumes were wigs and frock coats for the men, voluminous long dresses for the ladies.

It was all executed very neatly, and all the cast delivered excellent acting performances, including a lot of complicated movement around the stage that was executed with aplomb: I particularly enjoyed Nicholas Mogg's Count Almaviva with his constant expression of being thoroughly disoriented while desperately trying to prove that he's still in charge. As Cherubino, Eleanor Minney delivered her big numbers well, allying a strong voice to her trouser-role swagger. Tristan Hambleton made an engaging Figaro, while Ed Bonner nearly stole the show as a particularly slimy Don Basilio.

But the pick of the singers was Elinor Rolfe Johnson as Susanna. Figaro is full of ensemble numbers in which many singers appear to be competing for the audience's attention; Rolfe Johnson's voice had the quality of soaring above the other singers, apparently effortlessly, and cutting through the wash of the lower registers, all the while perfectly weighted and without a hint of harshness. It's a voice that I'm sure I'll be hearing more of.

A word, though, for Amanda Holden's translation, which contributed a lot to the enjoyment of the evening with dialogue that was sassy, modern and entertaining without falling into the common trap of working too hard for laughs by adding in contemporary references.

Together with Rossini's prequel The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro is consistently more popular than any other comic operas (although L'Elisir d'Amore comes a close third). Last night's production made this seem only natural: Beaumarchais' characters are instantly recognisable and timeless, while the blend of riotous bedroom farce fun with heavenly music is completely disarming. Hampstead Garden Opera's production may not have the glitz or the consistent vocal strength of a major opera house, but I left the Gatehouse thoroughly uplifted.

HGO: The Marriage of Figaro, at Upstairs at GatehouseDavid Karlin reviews Hampstead Garden Opera's production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro5