Rescuing the Wit of Rome’s Barbiere

ItalyItaly Rossini, ll Barbiere di Siviglia: Teatro dell’Opera, Bruno Campanella (conductor), Rome, 22.4.2012 (JB)

Production:


Staging – Ruggero Cappuccio (in co-production with Teatro Verdi, Trieste)
Sets – Carlo Savi
Costumes – Carlo Poggioli
Lighting – Agostino Angelini

Cast:

Count Almaviva – Juan Francisco Gatell
Don Bartolo – Paolo Bordogna
Rosina – Annalisa Stroppa
Figaro – Alessandro Luongo
Don Basilio – Nicola Ulivieri
Berta – Laura Cherici

 

ll Barbiere di Siviglia: Photo credit: Courtesy of Rome Opera

 

Wit is a tricky business. Depending on slippage as it must, it can all too easily misfire, in which case its author is dismissed as witless. It is at its best when it sparks unexpected sense: using the familiar to illuminate the unfamiliar. It requires a lightness of touch; any form of weightiness instantly destroys it. Spontaneity is its soul – at least that is the impression it must give, even if we know that the best aphorisms of (say) the Wilde plays or the Voltaire diaries were carefully premeditated and crafted.

Saint-Saens, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Ravel, Debussy and Mozart have all shown that they have the right touch for wit when they need it. (This last beautifully illustrated by the young Russian pianist, Michail Lifits on his recent all-Mozart debut Decca CD.) But the supreme maestro of musical wit is Gioacchino Rossini. He ticks all the boxes in the above paragraph, exceeding expectation in every challenge. Wry, sly and immense fun. No wonder Il Barbiere di Siviglia remains as fresh as the day it was written and a lead contender for the most performed Italian opera.

With that criteria in mind I went to the Rome Opera’s Barbiere. It pains me to report some disappointment.

Much of the “trouble” has to be laid at the door of Bruno Campanella’s conducting, for the most part, as stodgy as overcooked institutional rice pudding. It also looks as though the Rome Opera should be recruiting some violins capable of outwitting Rossini’s demanding score. Those fast runs, forever changing direction and involving some awkward, inconvenient crossing of strings, would challenge the best of players. Yes, this is monstrously difficult music to play. But Rossini demands even more: the players are required to make it sound easy. Now there’s cheek for you! But last night, the Opera’s violins positively publicised their difficulties. Goodbye to Rossini’s wit. Ask any comedian. You can’t tell a joke if you haven’t memorised your words and made them part of yourself.

Ruggero Cappuccio’s production was for the most part tasteful and witty except for a temptation to tip over into farce at certain ill-timed moments. Carlo Savi’s sets and Carlo Poggioli’s costumes were minimalist, with some apt touches of colour and pantomime effects. Bringing on a merry-go-round converted into a barber shop for Don Bartolo’s shave was fun. Cappuccio has an unfortunate tendency to string his soloists across the front of the stage in a line up like an amateur concert-party for all the ensemble numbers (see photo). Oddly, as a quirky take on theatre within theatre, this nearly works.

Juan Francisco Gatell has all the qualities for the Rossini lyric tenor. His feel for the Rossini phrase is sheer magic (Ecco, ridente in cielo). For some inexplicable reason the Rome audience was punished by having the Count’s Act 2 aria (Cessa di più resistere) cut. Wit must be part of Gatell’s natural makeup; he conveys it vocally and naturally – it simply pours out of him. Not to mention his nimble ballet-like movements. I only wish that the conductor and some of his colleagues had watched and listened more closely to what he was doing.

But there were other vocal pleasures, too. Paolo Bordogna was note perfect and extremely convincing as the batty Don Bartolo, without relying on gimmicks; he is too complete a musician for that. And Nicola Ulivieri’s rendition of La colunnia (Don Bartolo) was wittily comic with a stunning richness of tone. I found Alessandro Luongo’s voice both too thin and too dense (depending on which register he was in) for a successful Figaro. In fairness, it has to be added that Rossini hands him a vocal killer in Largo al factotum della città. The Luongo voice does not have the agility to dart through these notes convincingly.

A distinguished colleague in the Italian music press tells me that Annalisa Stroppa is a young, relative newcomer to the operatic scene. Well, you are most welcome, Miss Stroppa. Your voice has all the right mezzo timbre for Rosina. But someone should have told you that Rosina is not Semiramide. She is much more fun and more mischievous. Please get yourself the recording of Conchita Supervia singing Una voce poco fa and listen to that lady’s vocal charm (unsurpassed in any other artist). You have a great deal of vocal charm yourself and I am wondering why we had to wait until Contro un cor che accende amore before you had the courage to relax into it. I am looking forward to hearing you sing a great deal more.

It was a pleasure to see that Rome Opera had not cut that enchanting little song of the housekeeper, Berta, which comes just before the storm of Act 2 –Il vecchietta cerca moglie, though Laura Cherici did not sound sufficiently involved in the fun she was supposed to deliver. At this point, Cesare Sterbini’s words are as witty as Rossini’s music and the wit was saved by the Opera’s excellent habit of running surtitles of the libretto.

Jack Buckley