Exactly a month after I had been so drained by a monochrome Lulu, I was back at the Royal Opera for another first night conducted by music director Antonio Pappano. Ah, what a difference not only a month, but also a witty use of colour can bring – for this first revival of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s production of Rossini’s melodramma buffa Il barbiere di Siviglia.
It’s two-and-a-half years since this, the third of the directorial pairs’ Rossini trilogy here (following Il turco in Italia and La cenerentola) was first seen and it is certainly the most spirited and colourful of the three. From the off, under a looming new moon, humour is to the fore, with Count Almaviva’s accompanying band, dressed as orchestral musicians, complete with instruments (including a double bass), clambering over the precipitous rake of the set.
Presumably the timing of this revival was determined by the amassing of a stellar cast. Of course, Simon Keenlyside has withdrawn from the title role on doctors’ advice, but Pietro Spagnoli is a handsome replacement. He’s making his Royal Opera debut, but is a seasoned Figaro across Europe as well as appearing, along with Juan Diego Flórez, on a Decca DVD of the opera.
His voice may tend to the forte too much, but he has bags of character and certainly made his mark, entering through the auditorium with his opening hit cavatina, Largo al factotum. The hits keep coming, with Flórez – new to the production, and singing Almaviva (aka Lindoro and Don Alonso in his non aristocratic disguises) in London for the first time – and Joyce DiDonato, returning to the role of Rosina she created her back in December 2005, both contributing fine and wildly acclaimed singing.
You might call this a “Britpop barbiere” with a Bridget Riley-esque diagonally striped multi-coloured set, with certain furnishings with Damien Hirst-like polka-dotted coverings, even though the sky-blue Keystone Cop suits of the long arm of the Sevillian law might be harder to find artistic forbears. Such vividness is matched by the comic business, with Alessandro Corbelli as a hyperactive Dr Bartolo (giving to falling asleep and falling off chairs) and a climactic First Act where the earth really does move, in a technically treacherous earthquake simulation.
Perhaps that’s why some booed the creative team at the end, as DiDonato slipped and twisted her ankle. With a request for our understanding after the interval, she used a crutch in the Second Act. The spontaneous applause for her pluckiness was enhanced at Rosina’s very next entrance, where she complains she has cramp in her foot!
There is sterling support too from Ferruccio Furlanetto as dour Don Baslio, Jennifer Rhys-Davies, returning to the role of Berta with which she made her house debut 16 years ago, and Jette Parker young artist Changhan Lin as Fiorello.
There was no doubt of the audience’s desire for a joyful evening. The applause and cheers were as loud and prolonged as those in SW19 this week. Towards the end Corbelli checked his watch after Flórez’s pure-toned rendition of the Count’s aria Cessa di più resistere as if there had been a bet as to how long it had to be before he was allowed an encore. Pappano sat at the harpsichord motionless and the applause (quite possibly orchestrated) eventually died down so Rossini, not any individual singer, triumphed.
Perfect for a summer’s evening, this production of Il barbiere breaks the Royal Opera’s tragic trajectory at the end of this season (all but Lulu, Italian: La traviata, Un ballo and, forthcoming, Tosca) and sees conductor, orchestra, company and soloists at the top of their game.
Delightful, so don’t miss the big screening around the country on 15 July.
Further performances: 7, 10, 13, 15 (BP Summer Big Screen) & matinée (conducted by Paul Wynne Griffiths) 18 July.