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Performances

Aleksandra Kurzak as Rosina [Photo by Mike Hoban courtesy of The Royal Opera House]
24 Jan 2011

Il barbiere di Siviglia, Covent Garden

In my July 2009 review of the first revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2005 production of Il barbiere di Siviglia I commented that the directors, aided by conductor, Antonio Pappano, had reinvigorated this operatic ‘old friend’, injecting freshness and spontaneity into familiar material.

Gioachino Rossini: Il barbiere di Siviglia

Rosina: Aleksandra Kurzak; Count Almaviva: John Osborn; Figaro: Levente Molnár; Doctor Bartolo: Bruno Praticò; Don Basilio: Ildar Abdrazakov; Berta: Jennifer Rhys-Davies; Fiorello: Daniel Grice. Directors: Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier. Conductor: Rory Macdonald. Set Designer: Christian Fenouillat. Costume designs: Agostino Cavalca. Lighting: Christophe Forey. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Tuesday 18th January 2011.

Above: Aleksandra Kurzak as Rosina

All photos by Mike Hoban courtesy of The Royal Opera House

 

Eighteen months later, under the revival director, Justin Way, the singing is still of a consistently high quality, at times reaching giddy heights, the costumes are just as gaudily dazzling, and the setting zany, even giddily anarchic. But, like a magnum of vintage champagne, its glossy labels promising much but the bottle left uncorked just a bit too long, this first night performance was distinctly lacking in fizz, the whole experience dramatically rather flat. When one of the best of all buffa operas struggles to raise a laugh in its opening hour, you know that something is not quite right.

There were certainly no complaints about the assembled cast of principals. American tenor, John Osborn, was musically and dramatically at ease in the role of Count Almaviva, delivering his opening aria, ‘Ecco ridente’, nonchalantly balanced in the twilit branches beneath the window of his beloved’s boudoir. His voice is quite light, and lacks a truly resonant gleam, but Osborn’s tone is sweet and relaxed, his phrases musically shaped and his projection even. His gentle lyricism deftly conveyed the Count’s heartfelt ardour and the anguish of unrequited love; and he displayed a similarly tender tenore di grazia in his Act 2 ‘Cessa di piu resistere’. As the evening progressed Osborn settled comfortably into the comic capers, enjoying the obsequious fawning of music-maestro, Alonso, and making a convincing and likeable drunken rabble-rouser.

As the self-important factotum, Transylvanian baritone, Levente Molnár, exhibited a powerful vocal instrument and bracing stage presence in the role of Figaro. Emerging from among the ranks of a surprised stall’s audience, springing athletically onto the stage, he brought an extrovert swagger to the role of barber and man-about-town. The energy of his entry was sustained throughout, but I thought there was a bit too much bluster and bluff, and a tendency to shout, particularly at the start. However, he certainly had the measure of the tongue-twisting text in ‘Largo al factotum’.

Bruno Praticò, as Doctor Bartolo, delivered his patter in similarly impressive and slick style in his Act 1 aria, ‘A un dottor delta mia sorte’, and demonstrated a sure sense of comic timing. But, he was ‘out-done’ in the comedy stakes by the extraordinary performance of Russian bass, Ildar Abdrazakov, whose powerful boom was almost over-shadowed by his astonishing physical exploits, which suggested that this Basilio was not only warped by malice and envy but truly demented!

Among this strong cast, the star of the show was, however, Polish soprano, Aleksandra Kurzak. Only the previous day, Kurzak had signed an exclusive recording contract with Decca, and the studio must be delighted and excited to have ‘hooked’ a singer who is certainly a luminary in the making. Kurzak combines technical assurance with an innate sense of dramatic pacing. The pyrotechnics scarcely caused her to bat an eyelid: she made it sound entirely natural to leap between registers and ornament extravagantly — seldom can coloratura have seemed so ‘normal’ a means of communication. Her effortless delivery, swooning sweetness turning to steely feistiness in a flash, was utterly bewitching. And she knows how to play the audience, her petulant dart-throwing in the middle of a sparkling, nimble ‘Una voce poco fa’, prompted the first real laugh, as Rosina’s ‘goodness’ — ‘I’m obedient, gentle, and loving’ — was ironically belied by a sudden flash of adolescent rage.

BARBIERE-10013_0019-MOLNAR&.gifLevente Molnár as Figaro and John Osborn as Count Almaviva

The designs are inventive and Christian Fenouillat’s minimalist sets eye-catching: a crescent moon against a purple sky gleamingly illuminates a silhouetted tree beneath Rosina’s balcony; stripy pastel clashes and playful postmodern dots are eye-watering, and emphasise the surreal air of anarchy. This visual playfulness is aptly complemented by the costumes of Agostino Cavalca.

Rory Macdonald conducted the ROH orchestra in a precise but unexhilarating reading of the score, accurate and crisply articulated but lacking frisson or a sense of risk. The greatest sense of danger came in the Act 1 finale, when the wildly tilting stage threatened to tip and toss the chorus of plastic-gowned gendarmes — who struggled gamely to stay upright but gave little impression of knowing what they would do if they did regain the perpendicular — into a muddled mound. There was a sense of impending doom as stage and pit also went adrift. Plenty of chaos, but not much comedy.

BARBIERE-10013_0005-GRICE&O.gifDaniel Grice as Fiorello, John Osborn as Count Almaviva and The Royal Opera Chorus

During the first revival, American soprano, Joyce DiDonato, did indeed take a tumble, breaking her leg in the process, and was forced to deliver the remainder of the run wheel-chair bound. Perhaps it was the added sense of unpredictably that this lent to the proceedings that kept me on the edge of my seat last time around. The dress rehearsal for this revival did in fact suffer its own near-disaster, when the stage set and machinery refused to co-operate and the cast had to perform in front of the safety curtain, the chorus singing from the stalls. It seems that this revival needs a touch of the unexpected to add a little spontaneity and surprise.

Claire Seymour

Click here for Claire’s review of the first revival.

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