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Joyce DiDonato as Rosina [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera House]
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Music-masters, singing lessons and serenading bands all abound in Rossini’s comic masterpiece, Il Barbiere di Sivilglia, but at this performance it was the medical rather than the musical puns which drew the loudest laughs.

Gioachino Rossini: Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Figaro: Pietro Spagnoli; Rosina: Joyce DiDonato; Count Almaviva: Juan Diego Flórez / Colin Lee; Doctor Bartolo: Alessandro Corbelli; Don Basilio: Ferruccio Furlanetto; Fiorello: Changhan Lim; Berta: Jennifer Rhys-Davies. Conductor:Paul Wynne Griffiths / Antonio Pappano. Director: Patrice Caurier / Moshe Leiser. Set Designs: Christian Fenouillat. Costume Designs: Agostino Cavalca. Lighting: Christophe Forey.

Above: Joyce DiDonato as Rosina

Except as indicated, all photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera House


With the characters afflicted by ‘anvil-hammer headaches’, scarlet fever and debilitating foot cramps, we were reminded that Bartolo is in fact an ‘esteemed’ doctor and that Figaro lists ‘surgeon’ as one of his skills. Indeed, it seemed that Bartolo was right when he complained that Figaro was turning ‘this house into a hospital’ — not least because the prima donna, Rosina, was wheelchair-bound throughout.

This was not, however, a quirky directorial whim of the kind that 21st-century audiences have become all too familiar with. There cannot be many Rosinas who would willingly elect to tackle the substantial challenges of the role from this confining position, but there was little choice for the American mezzo-soprano, Joyce DiDonato who, having continued valiantly after slipping on the opening night, subsequently discovered that she had in fact fractured her fibia. Forbidden to put any weight on her plaster-encased leg, DiDonato must have been in considerable discomfort, if not pain, and the audience whole-heartedly appreciated her determination to continue in the role, welcoming her first stage entry with a rapturous outburst of grateful applause.

BC200907020779.gifPietro Spagnoli as Figaro and Alessandro Corbelli as Doctor Bartolo

If she was physically incapacitated, DiDonato was in no way vocally, musically or dramatically hampered. This was an outstanding - and given the circumstances, astonishing — performance. Capricious and independent throughout, she overcame the physical restrictions imposed on her, offering a consummate display of coloratura singing and acting with panache and verve. DiDonata’s technical mastery is accompanied by innate musicality and powers of communication: she manages to make Rossini’s idiosyncratic twists, leaps, stutters and dynamic dips sound both effortless — in ‘Dunque io son’ she dazzled with a thrilling sparkle of a trill — and genuine.

Paradoxically, she used her injury to superb dramatic effect. Trapped both figuratively and literally, DiDonato presented a poignant picture of innocent vulnerability, threatened by a domineering tyrant; but simultaneously she twisted, pouted, whizzed from left to right, swung her undamaged legs and flailed her arms, allowing the petulance and feistiness of the ‘real’ Rosina to shine through.

BC200907010770.gifJennifer Rhys-Davies as Berta, Juan Diego Flórez as Count Almaviva and Joyce Didonato as Rosina

DiDonato was partnered by a fine cast of principals. From the moment he leapt onto the stage with a knowing nod and grin, after striding masterfully through the surprised audience, Pietro Spagnoli’s Figaro held the attention of all. This was a Figaro of enterprise, boundless energy and optimism, and the sprightliness of Spagnoli’s stage presence was matched by the vigour and meatiness of his singing. He relished the tongue-twisting patter and demonstrated a rich, deep warmth when offering a supporting shoulder to the pair of thwarted lovers. Standing in for Simon Keenlyside, this was Spagnoli’s Covent Garden debut — and on this evidence he should be back soon.

2009_ndg_0103(C)NEIL-GILLES.gifJoyce DiDonato as Rosina [Photo by Neil Gillespie courtesy of The Royal Opera House]

One pities Colin Lee, sharing the role of Count Almaviva with no less a stellar light than Juan Diego Flórez, whose effortless dispatch of the fiendish coloratura in the closing scene nearly brought the house to a standstill on the opening night of the run. Understandably perhaps, Lee seemed nervous at the start, as he strove to over-colour the words in his opening ‘Ecco ridente’, worthily emphasising the pain of unrequited love but producing an ugly, strained timbre in the process. Fortunately he became progressively more relaxed, and a legato tenderness and more subtlety of tone characterised his performance subsequently. More comfortable with his disguise as the spineless music teacher, Alonso, than as the drunken soldier who blunders his way into Bartolo’s house, in Act 2 Lee settled into the role, and in ‘Cessa di piu resistere’ he demonstrated a beautiful tenore di grazia, lightly presenting the vocal flourishes and singing with a joyful delicacy at the top of his register, with no sense of strain.

He was often criticised for creating emotionless characters, and it is true that many of Rossini’s principal roles here are simply caricatures. Nevertheless, Alessandro Corbelli warmed up nicely as the egotistical, domineering Dr Bartolo, producing some wonderful comic timing. His acting prowess was matched by Feruccio Furlanetto, as the unctuous, despicable Basilio. Furlanetto’s massive bass resonated with menace and evil intent. Indeed, in his calumny aria, he so revelled in the salacious, almost hysterical, delight he gained from his plans to slander Almaviva, that he came a little adrift from Pappano’s tempo, in one of the rare moments of shaky ensemble between stage and pit.

BC200907021080.gifAlessandro Corbelli as Doctor Bartolo, Joyce Didonato as Rosina, Pietro Spagnoli as Figaro, Jennifer Rhys-Davies as Berta, (Back Row) Ferruccio Furlanetto as Don Basilio, and The Royal Opera Chorus as Police

The smaller roles were also strongly cast. Jennifer Rhys-Davies presented a well-conceived Berta, singing with a verve and confidence which were equalled by Korean baritone, Changhan Lim, a Jette Young Artist, who showed much promise as Fiorello.

It was a minor flaw of this starry production that occasionally the zany design of this revival of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s wacky 2005 staging (with slight adaptations to accommodate DiDonato’s new mode of locomotion) threatened to upstage the singing. Leiser and Caurier’s long-term collaborators, Christian Fenouillat and Agostino Cavalca did not fail to exaggerate every comic moment. The pastel-box set with its web of sliding panels, trap doors and concealed windows certainly conveyed Rosina’s entrapment, but the garish, postmodern lines and dots and pantomimesque costumes — the nadir was reached when the police arrived sporting white, plastic helmets and black PVC capes — were cheap and nasty. The closing picture of red, heart-shaped balloons floating aloft was pure Eurotrash.

This is an undoubtedly funny production, but the directors over-play Rossini’s subtle side-swipes at theatricality and operatic conventions. In particular, the end of Act 1 was distinctly bewildering: the stage tilted and rocked from side to side, escape routes disappeared, as the ‘dazed and confused’ cast clutched their heads in uniform agony. Even Pappano, elsewhere so sure and in command at the podium or harpsichord, struggled to maintain the dramatic and musical momentum as the entire cast wobbled and staggered like a ship in danger of sinking.

Fortunately Antonio Pappano ensured that Rossini’s music retained prime position. From the crisp rhythms and tight runs of the overture, it was clear that the ROH band were once again on sparkling form. Pappano coaxed fresh colours from this well-known score and reinvigorated familiar rhythms with spontaneity. This operatic ‘old friend’ can certainly still astonish and impress.

Claire Seymour

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