The Barber of Seville (London Coliseum)
Jonathan Miller's sure-footed production of Rossini's comedy returns to ENO
Only two of Jonathan Miller's venerable ENO productions have survived the outgoing directorate's po-faced policy of culling populism. It's no coincidence that both are broad comedies, long-established in the repertoire, nor that they're here again as ballast in a cash-strapped season. An unmpteenth revival of The Mikado should pack 'em in at Christmas; I bet they wish they could bring back his Rigoletto too.
First, though, comes a 13th outing for Miller's 28-year-old The Barber of Seville. The grand old man was on hand to enjoy Peter Relton's smart revival of a production that's beginning to look whiskery, not through over-familiarity (it's the first time I've seen it) but because the whole evening feels a bit routine.
Yet it's still charming, and refreshingly funny in this era of wrong-headed operatic comedy (ENO's Die Fledermaus, anyone?). Miller never misses a trick with his unerring eye for a visual gag, and there's an old-fashioned solidity to Tanya McCallin's beautifully elided designs as they help the comedy along by filling the stage but reducing the active playing area to an intimate scale.
The close-rhymed translation by Anthony and Amanda Holden is witty but intrusive, although that's down to house dogma over using the vernacular. Sing Rossini in English, as here, and the bel canto morphs into sub-Gilbert and Sullivan tum-i-ti-tee. At least Miller allows Rosina to sneak a bit of Italian past the ENO thought police during her singing lesson.
The tale of a sly barber who helps Count Almaviva woo the ward of lecherous old Dr Bartolo (sung here, as often before, by the wonderful Andrew Shore) post-dates Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro but pre-dates it in Beaumarchais' original canon. The heroes, then, are all young people, and the casting reflects that.
Kathryn Rudge, one of Britain's brightest young mezzos, continues on her upward career curve as a delightful if under-characterised Rosina. I suspect she'll play herself in to the comedy as the run progresses. Was she struggling with her voice on opening night? The onstage glass of water would suggest so; but if so she covered it well. Rossini's fiendish writing held no terrors for her, whereas Australian baritone Morgan Pearse, the personable Figaro, tended to slur his presto runs into note-slaloms.
As Almaviva, Mexican tenor Eleazar Rodriguez may not be a natural comedian of the English-vulgar school, but he's a game guy with an attractive voice and he has the audience rooting for him as he gulls Bartolo and traduces Barnaby Rea's bumptious basso of a Don Basilio.
The evening's bastions, though, are Katherine Broderick (the exceptional young soprano sings her colleagues off the stage in the housekeeper's aria) and of course Shore, a comic actor of the first rank as well as a stylish and, in the UK at least, underappreciated baritone. He delivers more sight gags along the way than is quite decent — his reaction shots alone are worth the price of admission — and the speed of those buffo runs could give Usain Bolt a run for his money.
American conductor Christopher Allen's house debut passes muster — it's nicely paced and has a good head of froth — but there are some light voices on the stage and despite the score's transparency he tends to smother them. That's something Mark Wigglesworth never came close to doing in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Shostakovich's decibel-fest, two nights earlier. Go figure.