Charming though it is, The Barber of Seville is a tricky opera to get right. Directors who crack its comic side can, if they're not careful, compromise the music's delights with distracting interventions. Yet at other times, such as here, even the best Rossini singers can find themselves starved of laughter. (Chuckling at witty surtitles doesn't count.)
With Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier's production of Il barbiere di Siviglia now in its fifth incarnation since 2005, the onset of comic bliss depends largely on where you sit. For my last viewing I was in the front stalls and everything worked fine; this time, placed further back (along with the majority of spectators), little sense of animation came across. I had recalled a funny scene early on in which Rosina shows her petulance by chucking darts at the wall, but although Daniela Mack seemed to be playing this very well I couldn't make out a single dart from where I was sitting and the moment was lost.
The source play by Beaumarchais is set chronologically before the events of The Marriage of Figaro and concerns the Commedia-influenced wooing by Almaviva of sweet Rosina, his future Countess, from beneath the baleful eye of her lustful guardian, Dr Bartolo. It's inherently witty and even a little sophisticated, so why the bulbous nose on the face of Berta the maid? Why the semaphored slapstick with the shaving cream? Why, in short, is there so much overplayed buffoonery and dodgy timing?
Take opera glasses
Annabel Arden's Glyndebourne staging this summer may have been hamstrung by an ugly set but at least it had shovelfuls of wit and, in Björn Bürger and Taylor Stayton, an irresistible double act at its heart. The Royal Opera's Figaro and Almaviva, Vito Priante and Javier Camarena, are no less gifted than their country cousins but not even they can breathe life into Leiser and Caurier's flatly conceived opening scene.
If Priante and Camarena are clear-voiced assets, Mack on her Royal Opera debut is a star in the making. A mezzo in the Carmen mould, the Argentinian's Rosina smoulders like a rebellious bird and sings with ravishing engagement. Lighten the comedy a little and she'd be ideal.
The Portugese bass José Fardilha, another house debutant, makes heavy weather of Bartolo's throwaway patter number, and he shares with Ferruccio Furlanetto's Don Basilio an overweighted approach to the comedy. Madeleine Pierard on the other hand makes the most of Berta's solo number and leaves you wanting more.
Thomas Guthrie's revival of Leiser and Caurier's work is faithful, albeit with no attempt to solve any of the show's problems, and Christian Fenouillat's inventive set never fails to amuse. The ROH Orchestra plays with considerably less élan for Henrik Nánási than it did the previous evening under Pappano (in Norma), but speeds were pleasing even though articulation occasionally slipped.
A mixed bag of an evening, then, but not without its incidental pleasures. And if all else fails there's always Rossini at his most inspired to guarantee some entertainment. Unless you're front-stalls wealthy, though, take opera glasses.
Il barbiere di Siviglia runs in repertory at the Royal Opera House until 11 October.