The last time that Moshe Leiser and Patrice Cauriers 2005 production of Il barbiere di Siviglia was revived, commentaries focused on the consequences of one chance event on the first night. Joyce DiDonato playing Rosina fell and broke her fibula, prompting her to perform with a crutch for Act II (she thought it was merely a sprained ankle), and from a wheelchair for the remainder of the run.
Though DiDonatos tenacity, as well as the hasty restaging that the tumble prompted, were met with the type of warmth that only extraordinary events can ever achieve, this second revival does allow for a more sober assessment of the piece. Free from mishaps, the conclusion is that, while the staging achieves little in its own right, it is ultimately the cast that make this production work.
Having seen one of the later performances in 2009, I cant help feeling that the wheelchair whizzing up and down introduced a visual dynamic that is now lacking in its absence. Although there are some embellishments, such as the doors that magically appear and disappear from the walls, the stage is generally bare, which does little to enhance the concept. There are exceptions to this rule, however, such as when the entire set tips from side to side at the end of Act I. It is not only amusing to see the whole cast tumbling about, but raising the performance area just a few feet offers the audience a remarkably different perspective on the action and characters.
Christian Fenouillats set is also organised to aid smaller jokes, such as when Figaro follows his line about extinguishing the lanterns by trying to put out some of the stage lights. Its main advantage, however, is rather more subtle. By consisting of a free standing box-like area, the walls lined with Bridget Riley-esque wallpaper, it creates a space that just two or three characters can realistically fill, and fill it they do. As Figaro Levente Molnr is a particularly powerful presence who works his way through the auditorium at the start of Largo al factotum before thoroughly commanding the stage with the aria. His voice exudes strength and control, and yet demonstrates considerable flexibility to rattle off the tricky lines and apply a musical laugh to the end of phrases.
Another standout performance comes from Aleksandra Kurzak as Rosina who in Una voce poco fal presents a convincing and highly entertaining portrayal of a bored little madam who we can hardly doubt will get her own way. Kurzak brings a touch more vocal gravitas to the aria than many singers, and that is all to the good. She tosses out coloratura with ease, and the combination of rich tones, flexibility of approach, exquisite phrasing and priceless facial expressions make for a memorable performance. Throughout the evening there is a bite to this Rosinas feistiness that makes it easier to believe that she can be a viper when crossed than that her default position is obedient, sweet and loving!
As Count Almaviva John Osborn gets off to a more shaky start, his performance of Ecco ridente in cielo feeling tight and restricted, and his characterisation focusing on comedy to the detriment of Almavivas dashing charm. I suspect, however, that this had much to do with first night nerves, and from Scene II onwards he relaxes into the role, his voice takes flight and his comic timing proves impeccable. This is Osborns Royal Opera debut in a full production (he played Nadir in a concert performance of Les Pcheurs de Perles last October) and it is, by any measure, a commendable one.
As Doctor Bartolo Bruno Pratic is initially lacking in comic charge but soon overcomes this to deliver a perfectly pitched performance of A un dottor della mia sorte. In Act II his performance is so skilful that we feel sorry for him even as we laugh out loud at each and every step he takes towards his own undoing. Ildar Abdrazakov is a masterful Don Basilio, applying the right combination of comedy and creepiness to his ode to calumny, and ending the aria perched aloft Bartolos chair, the Doctor quaking between his knees. Jennifer Rhys-Davies gives a highly polished performance as Berta, singing her aria while swigging from a bottle, and Daniel Grice, a participant in the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, is a commendable Fiorello.
In the pit, Rory Macdonald finds an affinity with Rossinis score, applying texture and detail to its mesmerising beauty and bubbly charm, and although the audience didn’t clap for quite as long as they did two years ago their enthusiasm for what they had just seen was certainly not in doubt. Nor, for that matter, was mine.
Luciano Botelho plays Count Almaviva on 2, 5 and 8 February.