Revived ten times since, Jonathan Miller’s 1987 production of The Barber of Seville seems almost as much a mainstay of the operatic repertoire as Rossini’s masterpiece itself. And watching this 21st birthday revival, directed by Ian Rutherford, it’s easy to see why. Conveying an elegant simplicity, it betrayed the depth of thought and boldness of decision that went to producing that effect.
Under the baton of Rory Macdonald, making his ENO debut, the orchestra played the Overture with a refined elegance. The beautiful sound, free from wringing hands and excessive bravado, was fulfilling, except at certain climaxes which felt hollow and demanded something rounder. It was a single weakness in the playing, but one that was mirrored in the first act’s drama as a whole.
The small area that the actors performed in at the front of the stage in the first scene and in a small box-like room for the remainder aided the slickness of performance when individual characters were allowed to dominate. In the more farcical scenes, however, the restricted space for movement made the ‘Carry On’ moments seem timid and weak. To sacrifice space to achieve a sense of intimacy was a gamble, but the approach then won me over during Act One’s Finale when the principals heightened the humour through the restrained act of forming several priceless tableaux.
It was the moment that revealed exactly how the production’s overarching concept was supporting the singers, whose ability was never in doubt. Anna Grevelius captured Rosina’s ambiguous nature with some beautiful, but not excessive, vibrato singing, making us uncertain (as we should be) whether her romantic heart spawned from her playful nature or vice versa. As Count Almaviva, John Tessier took some risks in applying such an abrasive edge to certain solos, and keeping up a comic nasal tone for so long in Act Two when he is disguised. Nevertheless, he prevailed simply by doing both things so well.
Andrew Shore, who has played Dr Bartolo many times before, steered clear of making the character too grotesque, and made us feel some sympathy for him, as we saw Rosina stolen from under his nose. Brindley Sherratt as Don Basilio combined a deep, smoky voice with strong comic gestures, whilst Garry Magee as Figaro stunned with his rich singing and sheer power of presence.
The ENO’s philosophy of performing everything in English helped particularly in this instance. Many comic phrases could be delivered to gain maximum laughs, which would never have materialised had the non-Italian speakers among us been forced to grasp the meaning merely by reading the surtitles.
The set was also atmospheric. We would still recognise today the rustic Italian street outside Bartolo’s house, with a shrine to the virgin and ancient Corinthian column inserted in the wall, yet even in Rossini’s day it would have felt ‘antiquated’. The house’s interior, decorated with statues from antiquity but not overly lavish (as befitting Bartolo’s means), also contributed a certain homeliness to the proceedings.
Act Two’s Finale failed to match up to Act One’s, and felt like an anti-climax. Nevertheless, it was clear to see why Jonathan Miller’s production is so popular, since it provides an effective infrastructure that then allows the characters to dominate. When, as here, this is combined with a superb cast, the result is something very special indeed.