Damiano Michieletto, now one of the most sought-after as well as controversial and – after the Covent Garden Guillaume Tell debacle – downright notorious stage directors, was moving his professional first steps when he created this production of Il barbiere di Siviglia for the Scuola di Formazione del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (the Young Artists’ Academy) in 2005, a mise-en-scène that in the ensuing years travelled to other co-producing Italian opera companies such as Udine, Ravenna, Jesi and Fermo. There is no denying that even at that time Michieletto already revealed an unfailing theatrical pulse: the stage is bare (perhaps too much so, and this is certainly a production that works better on much smaller stages than the Nuovo Teatro dell’Opera), with only seventeen chairs as props, which are continuously re-arranged so as to create different spaces and places.
Such stage emptiness is brilliantly filled by Alessandro Carletti’s beautiful lighting design clearly meant to evoke the sun-drenched Andalusian capital. Michieletto concocts an endless series of gags and sketches and places a strong emphasis on the acting: some of the characters are portrayed as anthropomorphised animals with attributes strongly linked to their prominent personality traits: Figaro is a fox, Don Basilio a reptile and Don Bartolo a mastiff-like guard dog. The action is framed by a train voyage: the loud speakers announce the imminent departure of Express Train 393 from Florence to Seville right before the Overture, which serves as the background for this journey mimed by actors comically following the rhythm of the music, until they arrive at Seville and witness the vicissitudes of Figaro and company; and at the end of the opera, during “Di sì felice innesto” the passengers, prompted by another announcement, get back on the train to return to Florence, which stands for the real world.
Elegance is the keyword to describe the approach of conductor Alessandro D’Agostino, who seems to have a precise, finely detailed view of this immortal masterpiece, wonderfully seconded by the Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. His tempos were often quite deliberate, almost cautious, but the performance never dragged, thanks to its basic rhythmic energy that did not gush out in all its brazen spontaneity typical of more vital and sparkling readings, but flows throughout the opera like an underground stream. Excellent as always was the Chorus. D’Agostino observed most of the standard cuts, particularly in the recitatives, and of course the tenor’s final rondo was excised: when this fiendishly difficult set piece is performed, Almaviva becomes the de facto protagonist of the opera. One thing I have noticed with increased concern is the casting of very light tenors with limited coloratura skills in this role, a throwback to an old custom that I had hoped the Rossini Renaissance of the late 1970s had wiped away. Francesco Marsiglia, our Almaviva, is a light-weight tenor gifted with a good technique and an easy, well projected top, but sorely lacking in coloratura skills. Almaviva ia after all a role created for one of the most important “baritenors”, Manuel Garcia, who specialised in coloratura di forza, and this is the type of tenor, darkish and well versed in both graceful and forceful agility that should be cast in this role. I appreciated baritone Julian Kim better as Riccardo in I puritani earlier this year in Florence than in this outing as Figaro: he has a handsome dark timbre and secure high notes, but tends to indulge in unnecessary histrionics, and his agility, while competent, was far from being immaculate. Both Luca Dall’Amico (Don Basilio) and Filippo Fontana, though not displaying particularly distinguished timbres or skills, offered respectable performances. Irene Favro as Berta sounded on the shrill side, but was able to belt out two penetrating high Cs in the Act I finale. William Corrò (Fiorello) and Saverio Bambi (An Officer) completed the cast. From a mere vocal point of view the highlight of the evening was the Rosina of Antoinette Dennefeld, a young French mezzo-soprano gifted with with a pleasant warm amber-like timbre, a supple and homogeneous production, a secure and resonant top, precise agility and even a good trill. Her weakness was a lack of incisiveness in the recitatives: her Rosina was sweet and feminine, much more “docile” than “viper”. Finally, her slightly aloof demeanour, slender wasp-waist physique, large blue eyes and long flowing blond locks were more reminiscent of an algid nordic waif than a determined headstrong Sevillana.
For the record, I am certainly not pleased to highlight the sparse audience, particularly considering that the ticket prices were very reasonable and that Florence is bursting at the seam with tourists this time of the year. Those who came however greeted the show and all the artists with true enthusiasm