United Kingdom Rossini, The Barber of Seville: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera. Conductor: Jaime Martin. The London Coliseum, London. 25.2.2013 (JPr)
I have been away from English National Opera for a little while and in the interim have seen reports of poorly received new productions, disappointing audience numbers – and consequently financial problems, as well as news of many cut-price seat offers for future performances. At least for reliable box office appeal, English National Opera has always been able to rely on a number of popular Jonathan Miller productions. Together, they have been a successful partnership since November 1978 and his stagings of Rigoletto and The Mikado have been two of the company’s greatest successes during the subsequent 35 years. The Mikado last appeared as recently as this January and this is the eleventh revival of his 1987 Barber – and celebrated here for its 25th anniversary. I suspect ENO – if they survive in their present form – will be hoping for similar longevity with his recent La bohème that will itself be revived in April.
In fact, I was at the Coliseum celebrating my own quarter-of-a-century from when I first saw this production with its original cast conducted by Mark Elder, including Alan Opie as Figaro, Della Jones as Rosina and intriguingly, Jane Eaglen as Berta. Jonathan Miller often used to oversee the revivals himself but now leaves it mostly to others these days. When this was last put on in 2008 he was in the audience but was nowhere to be seen this time, and it was revived by Peter Relton. Now for some modestly good news for ENO, Tanya McCallin’s dusty, slightly claustrophobic, ‘inside of the house’ set where Rosina seems imprisoned has aged well and it continues to provide a restricted platform for the plot’s farcical events. Her costumes are appropriate to the late-eighteenth century period (when Beaumarchais wrote the play on which The Barber of Seville is based) but have their own rather dusty, well-worn look to them now.
The quickly composed The Barber of Seville was premiered in 1816 and caused great controversy, yet it has become one of the most loved operas of all time. Why was it controversial? Well, firstly it was far from original, as Beaumarchais’ 1772 play had already attracted another composer, Giovanni Paisiello, whose 1782 opera was a big hit. (This is very similar to what happened with the Phantom of the Opera story for which there were other now-forgotten attempts at musical versions before it brought Lloyd Webber his great success.) When Paisiello’s admirers found out about Rossini’s new work they caused a commotion at the first performance that did not go well and things looked fairly bleak for Rossini. In the end, however, his version soon surpassed the rival one in popular appeal throughout Europe and beyond. In 1825 it was the first opera to be sung in Italian in New York, and Rossini was arguably the most popular composer in the world at the time. As it happens, The Barber of Seville can now feel like quite a modern idea because, from films and TV, today’s audiences are more familiar with the idea of ‘prequels’ than people in the early nineteenth century would have been. Beaumarchais followed up his original play with The Marriage of Figaro in 1778 and this ‘begat’ Mozart’s wonderful opera eight years later, featuring the continuing story of Rossini’s characters.
The plot was rather formulaic even in Rossini’s own time because Beaumarchais’ characters have their roots in the commedia dell’arte tradition that dates back to sixteenth-century Italy and was still popular in much of Europe 200 years later. Figaro, Count Almaviva in his soldier disguise and Doctor Bartolo reflect the ‘stock’ characters of the cunning servant, the braggart soldier and the duped, doddery old man. The main story is another very familiar one in opera with a pair of young lovers being united after overcoming a number of obstacles.
Jonathan Miller – as diluted by director Peter Relton – brings us a lot of sight gags: the ladder emerging from the trunk brought on stage at the start by the Count’s performing troupe and the ducking and diving caused by Don Basilio’s large hat are just two examples. The humour is anarchic, anti-authoritarian, a little sardonic but rarely cruel. Pomposity may be deflated and no-one suffers long-term harm as The Marriage of Figaro shows. It is Rosina perhaps who comes off worst but at the end of The Barber of Seville she is yet to know that her marriage to the Count will be a loveless one. Miller wraps up commedia dell’arte, the Marx Brothers and very familiar elements of theatrical farce to give the audience an evening of genuine pleasure – often laugh-out-loud funny – that makes it the perfect diversion for a cold winter’s night. There is also much humanity on display and I challenge the hardest of hearts to be unaffected by the way Doctor Bartolo accepts Rosina’s kiss at the end and resigns himself to the fact she is lost to him forever.
I did enjoy myself once again but I did feel it all seemed a bit longer than I remember with a first act lasting nearly 100 minutes. The real fun to be had was only when the eye-catching Andrew Shore (Bartolo) and Lucy Crowe (Rosina) were on stage. Was Jonathan Miller’s guiding hand missed or was flautist-turned-conductor Jaime Martin’s tempi a little over-indulgent for several of Rossini’s heavily ornamented melodies? And was the whole thing lacking just a smidgeon of the vim and vigour that it might gain during its current run of eight performances? Nevertheless, the conductor elicited some sprightly accompaniment from the fine ENO orchestra that he used to be a member of.
With his fine buffo-baritone voice, excellent diction and wonderful comic turn, Andrew Shore’s Bartolo is perhaps the best reason to see this revival. I have commented before on his fussy physical humour and pained expression of piqued pomposity. This together with his funny voices, pratfalls and comic ‘business’ with his eyeglasses on their cord around his neck getting trapped in the harpsichord, was priceless and worth anyone’s ticket money. One of his greatest lines in Amanda and Anthony Holden’s translation was ‘In my day, opera was opera and the sopranos were men’. On this occasion, because his Bartolo seemed straight out of the music hall tradition that brought us Sid James – and especially with the pert and wide-eyed Lucy Crowe as Rosina looking like a young Joan Sims – it made me think at times I was watching Carry On Barber – the musical!
This Barber is reasonably well cast with some promising British singers: however, Andrew Shore, Lucy Crowe, David Soar’s cavernous black bass notes as Basilio and Katherine Broderick’s Valkyrie-like Berta – the youngest ‘old maid’ I have ever seen – seemed to unbalance the ensemble whenever they were involved in the action. Benedict Nelson was a rather laid-back Figaro and did not have quite the voice or personality for the barber and as a result seemed a minor character in the opera that is named after his character. I am sure Andrew Kennedy could be very good in the right role and he did not spoil anything, but here it was very evident he was uncomfortable with Almaviva’s comedy disguises, as well as, the high tessitura.
Lucy Crowe imbued Rosina with a modern flirty, flighty, coquettish energy and sang with a limpid clarity, an even coloratura soprano sound across all registers and piping high notes. Her acting was nuanced and natural, and her expression of delighted astonishment at the revelation of Almaviva’s true identity was priceless.
For information about future English National Opera performances visit www.eno.org.