Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser’s stylised, luridly coloured, and effervescent production of Il barbiere di Siviglia is one of The Royal Opera’s more whimsical offerings. Its foundation is an atmosphere of vibrancy and mischief that is an apt companion to Rossini’s glittering score; its easy comedy and lightheartedness render it the ideal vehicle for star singers to impress. Despite being graced in past years by more obviously star-studded cast lists, the present offering, the production’s third revival, does not disappoint on this count. Indeed, this revival was granted new life by the fresh names in what turned out to be a remarkably good cast, the evening joyous and superbly sung.
The cast was led by American baritone Lucas Meachem, who brought presence and panache to the role of Figaro. The stage was set from his entrance, his magnificently sung ‘Largo al factotum’ one of the evening’s undisputed highlights. Ambling blithely through the stalls as he crossed over the front row to reach the stage, his capacious voice carried the barber’s merry aria sonorously throughout the wide span of the house. His height brought a physicality to the role that suited the boldness of his voice, making it hard to look away during his scenes on stage. His acting played up the comedy value of the part flawlessly, achieving the right balance without overdoing it. He was at his comic best when exchanging letters with Rosina in Act I on behalf of ‘Lindoro’, and in Act II when he convinces Bartolo to hand him his set of keys , allowing him to steal the key to Rosina’s balcony and paving the way for the opera’s dénouement.
Italian-American tenor Michele Angelini made an impressive Royal Opera debut as Count Almaviva. After a spirited overture under conductor Mark Elder, Mr. Angelini delivered an ardent ‘Ecco ridente in cielo’, the unforced lyricism of his tone lending itself aptly to the romantic yearning of his character. If he lacked the stage presence of Mr. Meachem, his warm, golden-hued timbre was beautiful and a constant pleasure to hear. He attacked the wide ranging coloratura of the part with gusto, and though he seemed to be flagging by the end of the evening, his top notes a little thin and losing some of their luster, he nevertheless succeeded in scaling the heights of the often cut aria ‘Cessa di più resistere’, helpfully supported by Mr. Elder’s sympathetic orchestral accompaniment. It was a fine debut, and left one eager to hear his return to Covent Garden as Don Ottavio in a few months.
Mr. Angelini’s characterisation was best during his scenes with Rosina when he could fully play the part of the impassioned young lover. Of particular note was his Act II dalliance as ‘Don Alonso’, in which he disguises himself in the same somber black cowl worn by Don Basilio as his replacement in teaching Rosina’s music lesson. His comically insistent refrain of ‘Pace e gioia’ to the curmudgeonly doctor could not but garner laughter—though this was of course buoyed by the faultless comic timing of Alessandro Corbelli’s Doctor Bartolo. Mr. Corbelli has the measure of such opera buffa roles down to perfection. If some strain was audible in his baritone during the highest stretches of ‘A un dottor della mia sorte’, he nevertheless exhibited a commanding stage presence that none perhaps save Mr. Meachem could match. He brought enough winsome humour to the part of the odious guardian determined to marry his ward in his order to secure her dowry that one could not help being charmed despite his bad intentions. In the midst of a highly amusing cast, he stole the music-lesson scene when, whipping his silk bathrobe over his shoulder as a cape, he daintily tapped his feet in a solo minuet and serenaded the young lovers with a rendition of what opera sounded like in his day.
If Mr. Corbelli exhibited the best of what a seasoned performer on the Royal Opera House stage could bring to the production, the Rosina of Serena Malfi cogently illustrated the pleasure of encountering the new. Her house debut impressed from the first bars of ‘Una voce poco fa’, her agile mezzo –soprano deftly navigating its coloratura flourishes. Her timbre bears a pleasing warmth and richness, and her portrayal imbued Rosina with an innate strength of spirit that left her formidable. She made one truly sympathise with her perceived betrayal by her ‘Lindoro’ in the second act, and the final scene of reconciliation between her and Mr. Angelini’s finally revealed Count Almaviva was heartfelt and poiganant.
At the other end of the spectrum, Italian bass Maurizio Murrano was extremely funny as the venal Don Basilio, his powerfully voiced ‘La calunnia’ sung with patent relish, every word deliciously savoured as if it were the character’s beloved slander itself. Smaller parts were no less well taken; the Berta of Janis Kelly was impressive enough that, particularly as one heard her soaring high notes in the chorus that ends Act I, one wished she could have had more to sing. Wyn Pencarreg was a handsomely voiced Fiorello, and the Royal Opera Chorus provided marvellous accompaniment to the proceedings on stage, whether dressed as black tie orchestra performers or a cartoonish police force clad in shiny blue uniforms with black capes. They and the orchestra ensured the evening remained consistently rousing.
All of this was underpinned by a natural reading of the score that soared with lightness and élan. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House played charmingly under Mr Elder, all the brilliancy of Rossini’s music teased out in vivacious woodwind murmurs, dashing strings and exultant horns. The pacing throughout was faultless, the thunderstorm interval that prefaces the final scene sufficiently thunderous to be gloriously evocative of both the weather and the drama. Mr Elder showed well-judged restraint in support for the singers, building quietly at the tumultuous Act I finale, letting the drama run its course on stage and gradually crescendoing to the sheer pandemonium of its conclusion.
Caurier and Leiser’s production has never been one for subtlety, but it certainly succeeds in making an evening at the opera a great deal of fun. All the flagrant design touches, from the Paul Smith-inspired wallpaper with its multi-coloured stripes in Bartolo’s house, to the oversized crescent moon set amidst the deep purple jewel-box of the early morning sky, create mise-en-scènes which one is not liable to soon forget. There are occasional misfires of dramatic hyperbole – the dizziness-inducing lifting and shaking of the set during the chaotic end to the first act springs to mind – yet its whimsy succeeds far more often than it falters. Revival director Thomas Guthrie should be congratulated on keeping up the full dynamic allure of the production intact, the direction taut and feeling every whit as fresh as when it was new.
Ultimately, this Barbiere di Siviglia is an absolute joy, acutely revived, headed by a deceptively strong cast and showcasing the full wit of Rossini’s score. It is particularly recommended to those not familiar with the delights of this production; for those who are, it is nevertheless worth a list for some accomplished house debuts and the generally high musical values achieved by the orchestra under Mr Elder
John E. de Wald
(Photos by Tristram Kenton)