It may strike some as odd that Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s 2005 production of Il barbiere di Siviglia should approach Rossini’s masterpiece in quite this way, since it does not seem obvious to give such a comic creation a minimalist staging, but, notwithstanding a few difficulties, their approach works because it is used to make a number of telling points.
Christian Fenouillat’s set consists of a free standing box-like area, which creates a stage within a stage. The shenanigans that occur in the opera make it appropriate to emphasise the notion of performance when presenting it, and the effect is enhanced by placing footlights in front of this second smaller stage and having the principals bow even as they sing their final notes. With the side walls running at angles, the performance space draws the eye in and is lined with colourful Bridget Riley- esque wallpaper.
In Act I hardly anything stands in the area, with even doors and windows only appearing in the walls when they are needed. This places the onus on the principals to fill the space, which they succeed in doing because its relatively small size means it can realistically be dominated by just two or three of them. There are minuses still, and when Bartolo sings ‘A un dottor della mia sorte’ it is left entirely to Alessandro Corbelli to provide all of the interest, which fortunately he is more than capable of doing. When, however, it seems so obvious to play out the fact that the Doctor is not as clever or upstanding as he asserts (in Jonathan Miller’s ENO production he traps his pince-nez in the harpsichord as he sings), it seems a shame not to be able to do so because no props grace the stage.
At the end of Act I the entire set rises and tips from side to side. It is not only amusing to see the whole cast tumble about, but raising the performance area just a few feet offers the audience a remarkably different perspective on the action and characters. The fact that the set is required to move may explain why Act I is so prop-free, and, if so, it feels as if much has been sacrificed in pursuit of this one final effect. Certainly, more items are introduced into Act II when the floor remains fixed in place, and the second half does feel more successful.
If, however, this production is even more dependent than most on the cast to carry it off, the principals are more than up to the task of doing so. As Almaviva, Michele Angelini, making his Royal Opera debut, gives the audience confidence from the start. His rendition of ‘Ecco ridente in cielo’ may not be entirely perfect, but it still feels more fluid than that of some others, coming as early as it does before the voice has had time to warm up. If his sound does not quite capture the cleanness and strength right at the top of the register that the part ideally demands, overall it is exceptional in tone, clarity, warmth and accuracy. He is every inch the dashing charmer, but there is also just enough arrogance in his outstanding performance of ‘Cessa di più resistere’ (how sad to see it cut from so many productions) to suggest that he really could become the despot we see in Le nozze di Figaro.
Lucas Meachem is brilliant as Figaro, with a voice so strong and accomplished that it seems he can take it for granted, and concentrate entirely on putting on a performance as the loveable rogue. He works his way through the auditorium at the start of ‘Largo al factotum’, having fun as he trips over half of the front row, before thoroughly commanding the stage with the aria. Italian Serena Malfi also makes a stunning Royal Opera debut as Rosina, with a rich, burnished mezzo-soprano that reaches every far corner of the auditorium with crystal clarity. She could afford to relax a little more so that we genuinely believe in her character, and don’t feel we are witnessing someone deliberately portraying boredom and determination during ‘Una voce poco fa’ or fury during the storm sequence, but this is a minor criticism.
As we might expect, the old hand Alessandro Corbelli is comedic perfection as Doctor Bartolo, meaning that we feel sorry for him even as we laugh out loud at each and every step he takes towards his own downfall. Interestingly, this Bartolo seems a lot happier than most at the end as he gets the money but not the girl. Maurizio Muraro is a more comical than creepy Don Basilio as he plays the music teacher as a likeable, slightly galumphing, oaf. This works brilliantly in Act II when he is so slow on the uptake, but his ode to calumny in Act I does require just a little more brutal menace. The aria still prevails, however, because Corbelli’s reactions are so priceless, and while in 2011 Ildar Abdrazakov as Don Basilio ended it perched aloft Bartolo’s chair, with the Doctor quaking between his knees, here Corbelli lies prostrate on the floor as Muraro’s arms loom over him.
Janis Kelly gives a highly polished performance as Berta, singing her aria while swigging from a bottle, while Wyn Pencarreg is a commendable Fiorello. In the pit, Sir Mark Elder, who also conducted the original 2005 production, brings such texture and accuracy to the score that we become just as captivated by the reams of recitative as by the most beautiful of the opera’s arias.