You're only ever two haircuts away from a staging of Rossini's most popular opera, but don't let its familiarity put you off. The new production from Opera Holland Park is as trim as any recent visit to The Barber of Seville: primped, puffed and pomaded with barely a hint of a comb-over.
Rossini's opera sticks closely to Beaumarchais' play, the first of three he wrote about the wily Figaro. By the second of them (which Mozart had already set as Le nozze di Figaro, well before Rossini took an interest in the characters) the aristocratic Count Almaviva had developed some unfortunate high-handed habits, but in Il barbiere di Siviglia he's just an amorous young jackanapes who, with Figaro's help, masquerades as a pleb in order to lure his beloved Rosina away from her guardian, Doctor Bartolo.
It is unclear why director Oliver Platt has located the opera not in 18th-century Spain but in an Italianate version of Dickensian London, complete with lamplighters and Bow Street Runners, but it inflicts no serious damage. Indeed, the interjections of ‘Who Will Buy'-style costermongers during Figaro's famous entrance aria, 'Largo al factotum', are an inspired touch of colour. Despite a few saggy moments there's plenty of comic business to enjoy, Neil Irish's detailed, perspective-heavy designs are pleasing on the eye, and if it all feels a bit old-fashioned – well, why not?
After a shaky overture at the second performance the City of London Sinfonia responded well to Matthew Waldren's baton, his apt tempo choices and a persuasive musical momentum compensating for an absence of pointillist detail. The strings were on gleaming form and only the electronic keyboard continuo jarred.
"Kitty Whately has charm, wit and character in spades"
There were no such issues onstage. Every singer was well cast, with Nicholas Crawley making a good fist of his promotion from the cough-and-spit character of Fiorello (which he retained) to cover as Don Basilio as well. As for Nicholas Lester, a former Fiorello at this address and a chorus member in an even earlier incarnation of Il barbiere, he celebrated his promotion to the title role with a vocal performance of sprightly and mellifluous vigour.
Jonathan Veira as Bartolo is the real deal: a buffo bass who can splutter every last quickfire syllable of ‘Signorina, un'altra volta' without losing a tooth. His long-suffering housemaid Berta, though barely sketched in by the director, was beautifully sung by Alinka Kozari, and tenor Nico Darmanin's Almaviva settled down after a rickety first aria to become every inch the dallying Almaviva.
Il barbiere di Siviglia stands or falls by its Rosina, and Kitty Whately is already tried and road-tested as one of the best. The radiant young mezzo has charm, wit and character in spades, with an assured, warm-toned vocal delivery that beguiled this audience exactly as it did those who saw her in the role for English Touring Opera. If she is not a big international star before the decade's out, I'll eat my well-shorn head.