The genesis of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia is one of opera’s great legends. Written in 13 days when the composer was only 23, the Barber is his most popular comedy, and contains his two most famous arias, one of his best duets, and a first-act finale of the most complex dimensions.
The story, based on Beaumarchais’ play The Barber of Seville, describes the attempts of Count Almaviva to whisk away the beautiful but caged Rosina. But her ward, Doctor Bartolo, wants to marry her as well, for her dowry, and it takes all the efforts of the ingenious Figaro – the eponymous barber (amongst other things) – to eventually contrive the happy union of Rosina and Almaviva.
This is the third Rossini production at the Royal Opera House by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, and they could hardly have served up a better dish of a Christmas opera. With a first act lasting an hour and forty-five minutes, Barbiere is a difficult work to stage, in particular because so much of the action takes place in the same room. Yet they overcome this with the clever use of trapdoors, sliding walls and split levels – for instance, Almaviva makes his first entrance low down at the back of the stage with only his head visible, and for a moment I was afraid we were in for an evening of Rossini chez Beckett. But no – wit and vivacity rule the day here, on the whole.
Perhaps Christian Fenouillat’s design for the interior of the house was a bit bland – a blue box with pastel-coloured lines, which was manipulated with sea-sickening violence during the stretta to the Act I finale. But I liked the subtle projections of the passage of time in the opening scene, moving from a moon and stars to early morning. Agnostino Cavalca’s gaudy costumes seemed to indicate a mixture between the Commedia dell’arte, Punch and Judy and Gilbert and Sullivan, and they really worked as an illustration of Rossini’s world of occasionally sinister illusion (though it was never too dark) and stock characters. The truncheon-wielding policemen appearing at the end of Act I were a scream.
Mark Elder’s work in the bel canto has become increasingly ‘period performance practice’ oriented. The orchestra pit was raised to bring the singers and players into closer contact with one another, the accompagnato group was in the middle, and the violins were reduced in number and encouraged to play with minimal vibrato. The result was a performance of the utmost clarity and sparkle, though I felt the overture and certain other passages were excessively slow and even leaden at times.
Treat yourself to a ticket, if only to hear and see Joyce DiDonato’s stupendous Rosina. Una voce poco fa was ideally sung, and her coloratura throughout the evening was magnificent. Add to that stunning looks and vivacious acting and you have opera at its best.
The Figaro was George Petean, who impressed (me, at least) as Silvio in Pagliacci a couple of years back. Here he was again in excellent voice, coming on from the back of the theatre with flashing lights all over his dungarees for a solid Largo al factotum. The duet with Rosina, Dunque io son, showed an incisive interaction between the two performers.
British tenor Toby Spence was pretty good as Almaviva, even if he lacks the final ounce of attack in difficult cadenza-type passages, and though Bruno Praticò fluffed his first aria, later on he gave a warm-hearted and bubbly interpretation of Bartolo.
Setting the evening off to a high-class start was Young Artist Robert Gleadow as Fiorello, making his third barnstorming appearance in four months. The cheers at the final curtain showed the audience had noticed the presence of what could be one of the great voices of the future.
So despite some minor reservations, which may be overcome as the production beds down, this was a great way to end a strong year for the company.