Virginia Opera's engaging production of Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro," presented Friday and Sunday at the George Mason University Center for the Arts in Fairfax, was a lesson in the ways a regional company can intelligently exploit modest resources to produce strong, theatrical opera.

The sets and costumes, by Peter Dean Beck, were traditional and functional, in muted colors--nothing flashy about them--yet smartly tuned to the action. There's the key. Figaro's new nuptial bedroom in Act 1 is supposed to be an unused room sandwiched between two regal bedchambers; Beck properly made it look like an oversize utility room. Under David Farrar's direction, the stage never seemed deserted with just a duet in view, or stuffed when the chorus came on. And with one exception, mezzo Layna Chianakas's Cherubino, there was no overdone comic mugging. Each singer had a sharply drawn character, true to the role.

Thus at the high point of the second act, when the Count (handsomely sung by baritone James Kleyla) is ready to run through whoever is hiding in his wife's closet, we see one of his multiple facets: He's a spoiled, hotheaded Mediterranean husband. Both Kleyla and soprano Fabiana Bravo were making their Virginia Opera debuts with these performances (I heard them Sunday afternoon), and together they held the stage with noble authority. In the Countess's aria "Dove sono," Bravo sang in lovely, dark-hued tones. Timothy Robert Blevins's high-energy Figaro and Indira Mahajan's winning Susanna were endearing as the betrothed servants.

What the company lacked here was matched vocal talent, and in "Figaro," of all operas in the repertoire--with so many superlative, subtly balanced ensemble numbers--that's a distracting handicap, like a chessboard where the pieces come from different kits. We heard several big, powerful voices (Bravo, mezzo Sondra Gelb as Marcellina), small ones of varying strength and refinement, and one or two that relied too much on thick vibrato for color. Finally, conductor Lucinda Carver's tempos were sensitive to the singers--they could roll their lines out comfortably--but she seemed to ignore the orchestra, which played mezzo-forte throughout, cleanly but with a gray effect.