Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Barber of Seville review – English National Opera revives Jonathan Miller’s staging of Rossini’s comic masterpiece

14 February 2024


It may be approaching 40, but despite a little wear and tear round the edges, ENO’s legendary production provides the perfect foil for an energetic cast to bring this sparkling opera to life.

The Barber of Seville

Anna Devin, Innocent Masuku, Charles Rice, Simon Bailey & Alastair Miles (Photo: Clive Barda)

The late Jonathan Miller provided the English National Opera with a string of revivable stagings, and his engaging, witty, yet thoughtful take on Rossini’s comic masterpiece is one of his very best. I can think of only one misfire, a drab La traviata, but the rest have kept the tills ringing on St Martin’s Lane for over 40 years. Indeed his exemplary staging of La bohème was brought back to life after being unceremoniously dumped for a far inferior replacement, which was so dire it was unrevivable.

Luckily Miller’s staging of Rossini’s effervescent masterpiece has been a mainstay of the company’s repertoire since entering service in 1987, although this was its first revival since 2017. It could be argued that Tanya McCallin’s sets are now starting to show their age, and are looking a little tatty round the edges, but despite that, revival director Peter Relton caught the essence of Miller’s view of the work – a madcap world of topsy-turvy capers, infused with a sense of melancholy – to perfection. There were plenty of laugh out loud moments, the cast’s evident joy was infectious, and from the rousing audience reception awarded the performance at the end, it was evident that there was plenty of love circulating around the Coliseum – fitting, as it was St Valentine’s Day.

Very cleverly, Rossini pits youth against ‘the old guard’ in this opera, and it’s no surprise who wins. He firmly sides with Rosina, Figaro and Almaviva with the latter, Basilio and Bartolo, coming away bruised by the close of the proceedings. Miller however never really takes sides and invites the audience to do the same, especially when it comes to the relationship between Rosina and her elderly ward, Doctor Bartolo. Of course, he never lets us forget that Bartolo is a comic character, but in Simon Bailey’s exemplary, perfectly judged interpretation, his comic bravura is underpinned with a sense of loss and sadness. It’s extremely effective and creates a more balanced, nuanced view of the work. Bailey sings magnificently throughout, his patter nimble and coherent, and he makes every word of Amanda and Anthony Holden’s translation tell.

“…his engaging, witty, yet thoughtful take on Rossini’s comic masterpiece is one of his very best”

The Barber of Seville

Lesley Garrett, Anna Devin, Innocent Masuku, Charles Rice, Simon Bailey & Alastair Miles (Photo: Clive Barda)

Maybe taking their cue from him, all the cast got the words across clearly, and it was a canny decision to turn off the surtitles during the recitatives, as there was no need for them. There are, and always have been, arguments for and against performing opera in the vernacular, and it’s harder to imagine a more persuasive case in its favour than this effervescent performance.

New to the house, and the role, Irish soprano Anna Devin was a delight as Rosina. Although usually the domain of mezzos, Devin added a crystalline brightness to the coloratura, yet still mustered the necessary smoky tones for the lower-lying passages. She rode the ensembles with consummate ease, and presented the character’s stubbornness and determination admirably. Her love interest, Almaviva, was sung by South African tenor Innocent Masuku. Whilst his tenor may be a shade too light for the house, his rock-solid technique, perfect runs, and ability to switch from comedy to serious in the blink of an eye revealed a distinguished Rossinian, who will no doubt go from strength to strength. Alastair Miles repeated his oily, obsequious Basilio, while Lesley Garrett (herself a former Rosina in this staging) made a welcome return to the company as a know-it-all Berta.

The lynchpin of the evening was Charles Rice’s impeccably-voiced Figaro. His bright, forthright baritone was rich and colourful, his comic timing faultless. He dominated proceedings, yet never upstaged his colleagues. His opening aria, ‘Largo al factotum’ was perfectly judged, and he went on to produce a steady stream of warm tone for the rest of the evening. What a talent.

In the pit Roderick Cox (another house debut) led a frothy account of the overture, was considerate to his singers, and secured buoyant playing from the ENO Orchestra. Given everything the members of this orchestra are facing at the moment, their dedication and commitment to delivering world class performances is truly astonishing. Many of them, in addition to members of the chorus, happened to check their emails during the interval at the following evening’s performance of The Handmaid’s Tale, only to find letters of redundancy from the management. How callous to time the sending of an email this way! The Board should hang their heads in shame for the way they’ve handled this crisis, but the mismanagement of this company goes back a long, long way. The professionalism of the Chorus and Orchestra has never been in question, which is why they need your support more than ever. So stampede the box office, and show why ENO is a vital, and irreplaceable part of London’s cultural life.

• Details of upcoming performances can be found here.


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The Barber of Seville review – English National Opera revives Jonathan Miller’s staging of Rossini’s comic masterpiece