Part cartoon-strip, part 1950s/baroque mash-up, Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser's colourful, madcap take on Rossini's best-known opera has to be one of my favourite productions of recent times: it originally appeared in 2005, but I first caught it four years later (as did Virgin's video-cameras), when the Rosina, Joyce DiDonato, was confined to a wheelchair having broken an ankle on the first night. Such a virtue was made of necessity that I wondered whether subsequent runs might retain the idea, but it was wonderful to see the dizzying physical comedy as originally intended in this sparky revival, with any cobwebs blown off by revival director Thomas Guthrie.
Making her house debut (and looking unnervingly like a young Cecilia Bartoli, thanks in part to a 1990s bouffant), Serena Malfi was an unusually truculent Rosina, strong on foot-stamping but rather short on charm in the early stretches. Less knowing than in earlier incarnations, this Rosina really convinces as a very young girl whose ‘cento trappole' are being thought up entirely on the hop, making her devastation at Almaviva's apparent betrayal all the more poignant. The voice is compact, bright and wiry, with more parts soprano than contralto; she sounded oddly occluded in 'Una voce', but by the second act had opened up for a show-stopping (and genuinely funny) lesson-scene.
Her Almaviva, Michele Angelini, another house debutant, made an even finer showing: in keeping with Malfi's characterisation, he brought more guilelessness to the role than his starry predecessor Juan Diego Flórez, fielding a beautiful, liquid lyric tenor that's perfectly even all the way to the easy top. It was a pity that some off-kilter chorus-entries threatened to derail him in an otherwise breathtaking 'Cessa di piu resistare', but how glad I was to hear this voice in an aria that's often cut. Catch him as Don Ottavio here later in the season – on this showing, it'll most definitely be worth hearing.
'Sir Mark Elder's lightly-sprung reading was a delight'
As his Figaro, Lucas Meachem exuded bluff bonhomie from his first, literally head-turning entrance, fully in command of the quick-fire patter and robust top notes which the role requires. It's pretty much impossible (even undesirable, perhaps) to play this title-role without a certain amount of mugging to the gallery, but Meachem neither short-changed nor overplayed his hand.
Veteran buffo baritone Alessandro Corbelli gave another masterclass in how to balance humour and pathos as Bartolo, though he's had better nights in the tongue-twisting rapids of his big aria. His rapport with Maurizio Muraro's deliciously disturbing Don Basilio was a joy: sounding like Verdi's Grand Inquisitor with his tongue in his cheek, Muraro swooped around the stage like one of JK Rowling's dementors, unnerving all and sundry with his unannounced invasions of their personal space. Completing the ‘below-stairs' team, Janis Kelly's unusually glamorous, chippy Berta made one lament the fact that role is so tiny.
I can't say I've associated Sir Mark Elder with opera buffa before, but his conducting radiated affection: he teased out every nuance and countermelody, fixed every slight glitch between pit and stage almost before it happened (it was occasionally, fleetingly obvious that this was a first night), and his lightly-sprung reading of the score was an overall delight.