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15 Jun 2005

Il Barbiere di “Siviglia” in Antwerp

Very attentive readers will have noticed I put “Siviglia” in quotation marks as it refers in this production to the name of an Italian hairdresser’s salon and not to the Spanish city. Director Joosten who always keeps an attentive eye on surtitles and has them changed when the sung lines are contrary to the happenings on the scene nevertheless let a reference to the Spanish Prado slip in.

Scene from Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Photo: Annemie Augustijns)

Il Barbiere di "Siviglia"

Lionel LhoteFigaro
Stephanie HoutzeelRosina
Iain PatonAlmaviva
Alexander VinogradovBasilio
Urban MalmbergBartolo
Anja van EngelandBerta
Benoît de LeersnyderFiorello
Michael AutenriethAmbrogio
Giuseppe GrisorioNotaio
Patrick CromheekeUfficiale
2=. Symfonisch Orkest en Koor van de Vlaamse Opera
2=. Conducted by Ivan Törzs
2=. Directed by Guy Joosten
2=. Sets and Costumes by Johannes Leiacker
2=. De Vlaamse Opera - Antwerp

Very attentive readers will have noticed I put "Siviglia" in quotation marks as it refers in this production to the name of an Italian hairdresser's salon and not to the Spanish city. Director Joosten who always keeps an attentive eye on surtitles and has them changed when the sung lines are contrary to the happenings on the scene nevertheless let a reference to the Spanish Prado slip in.

Anyway that was the only reference to a traditional Barbiere as Rossini's opera was fully updated to somewhere in the south of Italy. We are at the same time in a modern hairdresser's salon but one so open that the view of the windows of the apartments above unobstructed. The important thing is that the set worked well and helped to make the necessary comic points.

As is usual with Joosten he changed traditional perceptions of the protagonists. Figaro was not only the "factotum della citta" but a nice charming gay hairdresser who tries to seduce all and any male performer that comes within a distance of a yard (though I clearly remember a very macho Figaro in Joosten's Nozze di Figaro).

Rosina is a leggy young sexy lady not above using her many charms to get her man though that's where Joosten fails for the first time. Every time the lady appears she wears another wonderful often extravagantly coloured thick wig. At first the gimmick gets some tittering but by the sixth or seventh wig the hair is still as thick but the joke is definitely wearing thin. Joosten fails too (or hasn't sought for a solution) with Rosina's "billet doux" tricks. The letter jokes in 'Dunque io son' probably worked in Rossini's days but are stale nowadays. Joosten didn't have the courage of his convictions, let the lady write little notes instead of trying to work something out and let her SMS (Short Message Service) in this 2005 action play.

During the duet Figaro was extremely busy with some client who hid behind a newspaper. When he dropped the paper and left the salon, the audience discovered that one of Flanders' most popular entertainers had put in a cameo performance for a few seconds. The idea got a hearty and deserved laugh but the laugh would have been as big if the man had revealed himself after, instead of right in the middle of, the duet and the musical line wouldn't have been disrupted.

Almaviva corresponded more or less to the image of the Italian lover though Joosten had a small surprise. A pre-recorded "Se il mio nome" with a calypso rhythm and orchestra was played on a CD-machine.

The emphasis in Don Basilio was on 'Don' (as in Don Corleone) and he was changed into a machine gun handling gangster. Movie references are now a fixture of this director. In his Amsterdam treatment of Elisir d'Amore, Bryn Terfel was dressed and behaved as a mixture of Elvis Presley and Liberace. This time Ambrogio's (Bartolo's servant) main task was exactly repeating Gene Kelly's choreography (umbrella included and not in the libretto) around a lantern post (in the libretto) during the storm music. Don Bartolo was the only one behaving more or less in the traditional way, though he too was mainly busy shaving people instead of treating them.

The general impression was one of overdirecting, of too many jokes, of too clever ideas not always consistently worked out. One example: Seemingly drunken, Almaviva is not dressed as an Italian army officer but just as another of the bunch of carabinieri who is always entering and leaving the salon.

Still, the sum of this production is far more than the many small irritations. It is modern, respects the spirit of the work, gives sense and drive to the old warhorse. I hope the Antwerp opera will offer us a reprise in a few years when that great saviour of opera, 'plain routine', will eject a few of the extravagancies. But even now, I admit I wouldn't want to watch a traditional Barbiere in the seasons ahead; and that's maybe the highest praise I can give Guy Joosten (who will direct the new Roméo at the Met).

Musically there were a few problems. Conductor Michel Tilkin left at the last moment as things didn't work out well with his orchestra. Anyway that's the official reason. Rumour has it that he simply left in disgust at Joosten's treatment (that Calypso serenade?). So the Antwerp music director Ivan Törzs had to jump in.

Now Italian belcanto is not exactly Mr. Törzs speciality but the orchestra is so fine that the Rossinian crescendi didn't suffer and that harmony reigned between pit and scene (I attended the second performance). There were a few times when Törzs lingered too long on recitatives and he almost brought the music at a dead end in "Freddo ed immobile" but he still made the best of a difficult situation and singers didn't need to keep their eyes glued on the conductor.

Originally Gary Magee should have sung Figaro but already at the beginning of the season it was clear that Walloon baritone Lionel Lhote would take over. The baritone has a clear, big booming voice which is improving all the time. His is probably the greatest talent in the country and I would dearly love to hear him in a big Verdi role. A pity we have to suffer once more the inevitable Caproni or Vanaud next season in all the theatres over here when there is such a fine voice and an exuberant actor available.

Mezzo Stephanie Houtzeel has a ripe fruity mezzo that becomes rather shrill above the staff; and her coloratura are not exactly pure either. I fear the lady was somewhat more chosen for her fine looks, long legs and fearless acting than for Rossinian musicality. Tenor Iain Paton has the right voice colour but his voice too is somewhat unwieldy and he had his difficulties too with the intricacies of the score. Already in 1964 Ugo Benelli proved (too soon for the times) that "Cessa di piu resistere" is a necessary but acrobatic show piece for the tenor but Juan Diego Florez has now made it so popular that it is no longer acceptable to cut it as happened here (though it would probably have exposed Paton's lack of coloratura in a cruel way). This was rather conspicuous as Berta's almost unknown aria was restored, though sung rather sharp by Anja van Engeland. Apart from Lhote, the best singing came from the wonderful black resounding bass voice of Alexander Vinogradov. Urban Malmberg was a fine Bartolo.

Though Joosten may ask a lot of movement and antics from his singers, he is cleverly enough not to demand they should sing with their back to the audiences or swinging on a rope etc. They could easily project their voices in the audience.

Jan Neckers

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