06 Mar 2013

Barber by ENO

ENO’s advertising emphasises the ‘25th anniversary year’ of Jonathan Miller’s staging of The Barber of Seville. It holds the stage well enough without offering any especial insight — at least by now.

The programme book mentioned commedia dell’arte: Tanya McCallin’s designs are of that world, certainly, even if there does not seem to be a great deal in Miller’s production that goes beyond the general ‘look’ of that tradition. Unlike many endlessly revived productions, this, then, is not in itself particularly tired, and one can readily imagine it offering the opportunity for new casts to come in and assume their roles without a great deal of stage rehearsal. By the same token, when compared with, for instance, John Copley’s considerably more venerable Royal Opera La bohème, which I happened to see earlier in the month, the staging does not especially sparkle, enlighten, or indeed charm either. It would do no harm to have a little Regietheater cast Rossini’s way. Either that, or assemble a cast whose sparkle would lift the work above the merely quotidian.

I say ‘the work’, but this performance, unfortunately, put me in mind of Carl Dahlhaus’s ‘twin musical cultures’ of the nineteenth century: too clear a distinction, no doubt, but nevertheless heuristically useful. On the one hand, one has the culture of the musical work, as understood in an emphatic sense, that of Beethoven and his successors; on the other, one has ‘a Rossini score ... a mere recipe for performance, and it is the performance which forms the crucial aesthetic arbiter as the realisation of a draft rather than an exegesis of a text’. The problem was that this performance, taken as a whole, simply did not sparkle as Rossini must. One therefore became of the score as a decidedly inferior, indeed well-nigh interminable work. Repetitions grated and a good part of the audience was espied, furtively or less furtively, glancing at wristwatches. If Rossini’s ‘musical thought hinged on the performance as an event,’ then this was an unhinged performance — and not, alas, in the expressionistic sense.

Cast_Barber_ENO.gif Benedict Nelson as Figaro, Andrew Kennedy as Count Almaviva and Lucy Crowe as Rosina

Jaime Martin’s conducting started well enough. There was throughout a welcome clarity in the score; this was not, at least, Rossini attempting and failing to be Mozart or Beethoven. Give or take the odd orchestral slip, there might have been much to enjoy in the contribution of the ENO Orchestra, considered in itself. However, impetus was soon lost, and any ‘purely musical’ tension soon sagged. Whether the first act were actually as long as it felt, I am not sure, but many during the interval opined that it seemed as though it was never going to end. If Rossini’s repetitions as opposed to development serve a dramatic purpose, one can readily forget them; here they were apparent in unfortunately lonely fashion. I could not help but mentally contrast the extraordinary use to which Beethoven, for instance in the Waldstein Sonata, puts simple tonic and dominant harmony, to the tedium induced on this occasion. For some reason, the fortepiano was employed as a continuo instrument: a strange fashion, which has enslaved musicians who would never think of using it in solo repertoire. Performance, then, failed to elevate the ‘work’. At least the English translation, by Amanda and Anthony Holden was a cut above the average.

The greater fault in any case lay elsewhere, above all in Andrew Kennedy’s Almaviva. His casting seemed simply inexplicable. Almost entirely lacking in coloratura, let alone Florez-like facility therewith, he resorted to mere crooning, a state of affairs worsened by the application at seemingly random intervals of unnervingly thick vibrato. His stage presence was of a part with his vocal performance. Benedict Nelson’s Figaro started off in reasonably convincing fashion, but by the end was somewhat hoarse and throughout lacked the pinpoint precision that might have lifted the performance. By contrast, Lucy Crowe was an excellent Rosina. Her coloratura was impeccable, her gracious stage presence no less so. Andrew Shore reminded us of his skills as a comic actor in the role of Doctor Bartolo, and Katherine Broderick also took the opportunity to shine as Berta. Sadly, the increasingly lacklustre conducting and the embarrassing performance of Kennedy conspired to negate those positive aspects of the performance, rendering one tired with the ‘work’, however it were considered.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Count Almaviva: Andrew Kennedy; Figaro: Benedict Nelson; Rosina: Lucy Crowe; Doctor Bartolo: Andrew Shore; Don Basilio: David Soar; Berta: Katherine Broderick; Ambrigio: Geraint Hylton; An Official: Roger Begley; A Notary: Allan Adams. Director: Jonathan Miller; Revival director: Peter Relton; Designs: Tanya McCallin. Orchestra and Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Genevieve Ellis)/Jaime Martin (conductor). The Coliseum, London, Monday 25 February 2013