Destined to be remembered as the show that put Joyce DiDonato in a wheelchair, this curious production (revived here by Justin Way) is an uneasy collision of old-school buffa and contemporary chic.
Designer Christian Fenouillat encases the action in a box of tricks and dresses it in confectionery colours. His advent calendar of surprises culminates in a coup de théâtre late in Act 1 that sends the audience out to the interval rooting around for seasickness tablets. Too bad invention flags in Act 2, where joint directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier uphold the law of diminishing returns as their creative well dries up. There are only so many laughs to be had from a deferential police force or a collapsing set, and Levente Molnár’s joyous Figaro flounders late on when the most interesting thing he gets to do is snuff candles.
What the production most lacks is nuanced humour. Comedy is semaphored via gurning and hand-rubbing, by fake noses and bulging bottoms. There’s lazy direction, too, when Rosina kicks down the furniture in frustrated rage and Leiser and Caurier’s modishly spare stage is insufficiently cluttered with objects for her to assail. Fatally, she marks time to allow Rossini to catch up.
Thanks to the music there’s still plenty to enjoy. Rory Macdonald, who rarely disappoints in the pit, turns in a freshly paced and well shaped account with the ROH Orchestra; together they hit an early stride and only occasionally do the tuttis swamp the singers. Onstage too the musical pleasures are rich, the attractive voices of Molnár and John Osborn (a swaggering Count Almaviva) proving as complementary as their visual byplay during the first-act duos.
As Rosina in this revival we have a soprano, the ravishing and fast-rising Aleksandra Kurzak, rather than the mezzo around whom the production was originally built. The result is mildly disappointing not so much for Kurzak’s singing (although some pitch issues affected her Act 1 Cavatina on opening night) as for her lack of vocal character. Her coloratura stratosphere offers cartloads of charm but little scope for irony or wit. Even so, the second act belongs to Kurzak as she sulkily chucks darts hither and yon and delivers a mightily seductive ‘Contro un cor che accende amore’ during her singing lesson with the disguised Count.
Buffo specialist Bruno Praticò returns to the production in his signature role of Doctor Bartolo, his hilarious patter work spluttered with aplomb, while as his maid, Berta, Jennifer Rhys-Davies projects a warm personality through some grotesque make-up and sings with true Rossinian spirit.
In the Don Basilio of Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov we gain a glimpse of how successful the production would have been if its touch had been surer. The twinkle in Abdrazakov’s s eye is a joy; his ability to sing firmly and steadily while wobbling on the arms of Bartolo’s carver is a marvel. He skulks with oleaginous slime and steals the show with every twitch of his mobile face. Goodness knows where Abdrazakov’s centre of gravity lies; it seems to wander all over his body. I wish we’d seen more of him.