Monday 24 January 2011

Il Barbiere di Siviglia: Another Successful Rossini Revival at the Royal

The success of this revival of Rossini's Barbiere di Siviglia may be measured by the transformation it worked in my mood. When I left for the Royal Opera I was feeling tired and grumpy. It had been a long week at work, and I suffered through a ghastly train journey from Lincoln to Peterborough seated (on a full train) next to somebody playing tuneless music at a horrendous decibel level. It was another of those occasions when one wonders why one has booked the ticket. By the time I left the Royal Opera House I was practically skipping, not to mention grinning from ear to ear. Proof yet again that Rossini in the right hands is the best tonic I know to the stresses and strains of regular life.

The show started as it meant to go on, with a sparkling performance of the overture from the orchestra under Rory Macdonald. The strings had a wonderful jaunty lightness of touch, the woodwind and brass were playful, even cheeky, and Macdonald ratcheted the thing up and up to a feverish speed. By the end I was grinning from ear to ear, my enjoyment only marred by the infuriating woman next to me who kept rustling her sweet packet (she and her companion were soon whispering away, though they fortunately disappeared after the interval).

Perhaps inevitably the first scene wasn't quite able to live up to the promise of the overture. John Osborn as the Count and Levente Molnar as Figaro are both perfectly adequate singers but they don't quite have the spell-binding presence yet of truly great Rossinians. In particular, Molnar never completely dominated the stage as Figaro ought to do, and got a little out of time with the band in his opening number. Having said that they were never less than adequate, and Macdonald kept things humming along in the pit. It was the entrance of Aleksandra Kursak which took things to another level. She was excellent in last season's revival of Il Turco in Italia and she was similarly so here. She has a wonderfully lively, engaging stage presence, and possesses all the necessary vocal pyrotechnics for a Rossini heroine. I hope to see more of her.

All the secondary parts acquitted themselves well, but particular mention should go to Ildar Abdrazakov's slimy, slinking Don Basilio whose powerful voice sounded like he had escaped from something more Russian, and who delivered an excellent La calunnia e un venticello. The only really weak link (and he covered it not badly by resorting to a kind of breathy sprechgesang) was Bruno Practico's Don Bartolo whose voice just doesn't have the richness and flexibility the part really needs, and couldn't quite rise over the orchestra in the loudest parts.

The production itself isn't quite as spot on as that for Il Turco in Italia, and here and there had that slight lack of sharpness which can sometimes doom a revival. Basically it is fairly straightforward, and takes place in a flexibly reconfigured room in Bartolo's house. The various doors and stairs tended to creak when wheeled in, and while I accept that the lyrics of the finale are all about things being turned topsy turvy (I can't now quite recall the precise line that I think must have caught the eye of the directorial team), the rocking set and the large numbers of writhing chorus, not to mention the principals clinging to one another in the middle, didn't really work for me – and slightly detracted from the furious chaotic excitement which musically it ought to possess.

The production's highlight though came, accidentally, in the second act. Those familiar with the opera will know that the first scene features Rosina's music lesson with the Count, now disguised as a substitute music teacher. The set included a mock harpsichord. Early in the scene Figaro is despatched to find towels and managed to knock over one leg of the harpsichord. Rosina later has to trash the set when she learns of her lover's supposed betrayal, but it was not until I realised that the spoken dialogue had ground to a halt and Kurzak was masking a sustained fit of giggles that it became clear the harpsichord had been knocked down too early.

Overall, while not quite attaining the heights of the revival earlier this season of Rigoletto, there is sufficient energy and musical quality in this ensemble to cover the occasional lapse in precision. If, like me you like your Rossini, and if, like me, you are struggling from the evils of January, I strongly recommend it as an excellent restorative of good cheer.

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