Garsington’s charming and fresh interpretation of Rossini’s well-loved Il barbiere di Siviglia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Garsington Opera 2023 [1] – Rossini, Il barbiere di Siviglia: Soloists, Garsington Opera Chorus, The English Concert / Douglas Boyd (conductor). Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 31.5.2023. (CR)

Johannes Kammler (Figaro), Katie Bray (Rosina) and Andrew Stenson (Count Almaviva) © Clive Barda

Director – Christopher Luscombe
Designer – Simon Higlett
Lighting designer – Howard Hudson
Movement director – Ewan Jones

Count Almaviva – Andrew Stenson
Figaro – Johannes Kammler
Rosina – Katie Bray
Dr Bartolo – Richard Burkhard
Don Basilio – Callum Thorpe
Berta – Josephine Goddard

Over the years Garsington have become notable exponents of Rossini’s operas, having mounted several of the rarer ones, alongside the more famous. The Barber of Seville is probably the most ubiquitous of them all, but this is the festival’s first production of it since 2003, and so Garsington regulars will have the benefit of seeing the work both within the context of the composer’s wider output and in Christopher Luscombe’s lively, colourful and ultimately uplifting interpretation.

It faithfully recreates the backstreets of Seville with the facades of Simon Higlett’s stylish set designs for the mixtures of houses and shops. The action is brought forwards to the 1920s as revealed by the attire of the characters when they first weave their way through the lanes, and more spectacularly once the central edifice of Dr Bartolo’s house revolves to show its up-to-date Art Deco interior, intriguingly demonstrating that Rosina’s overbearing guardian is no stick in the mud, at least as far as fashion is concerned. Richard Burkhard’s eloquent performance also characterises him as a serious man of business and no mere buffoon, but with a sense of humour and – despite his own designs upon Rosina and almost competent control over her – is quick to forgive her and Almaviva’s ploy at the end.

In common with all the soloists here, Burkhard acquits himself well in Ewan Jones’s alert, slapstick choreography, which extends to the chorus and the musical band who feature on stage to accompany Almaviva’s serenade at the opera’s opening. The only uncharacteristic lapse in dynamism is during the very last moments of Act I’s finale of mad confusion where the cast line up statically at the front of the stage, rather than continuing to enact the hectic pace of the music itself within the set, dampening the climactic impact at this midway point, just before the interval.

Garsington Opera’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia © Clive Barda

Johannes Kammler is a charismatic, likeable Figaro, both in his hearty but not excitable singing, and his engaging acting which makes the part a fleet-footed, unobtrusive fixer. His is certainly not the most extrovert ‘Largo al factotum’, but in steadily bringing out nuance and detail in both words and music it comes alive with compelling subtlety as a witty little one-man drama in itself. Katie Bray – a veteran of Garsington’s last three Rossini productions (Le Comte Ory, Il turco in Italia, and L’Italiana in Algeri) – achieves the same versatility as Rosina, right from her first appearance in the celebrated aria ‘Una voce poco fa’, whose different sections she depicts with distinct vocal qualities to convey the character’s capricious nature. The ripeness of her voice is reminiscent of Brigitte Fassbaender, demonstrating a robust command of the music’s coloratura.

Andrew Stenson presents a jovial account of Almaviva, though with a slightly airy manner of singing so that he is not always absolutely focussed tonally, even if that makes for an attractive, seamless rendition of his opening serenade to Rosina. It is also a peculiar decision to present Almaviva’s disguise as the pretend signing teacher Don Alonso as an American, who deliberately enunciates the Italian text clumsily with a strongly retained American accent and the notes of the recitatives inaccurately pitched and half-spoken. Although well managed by Stenson, the idea doesn’t work, and doesn’t illumine the comic situation of the disguised interloper in Bartolo’s home at that point. Callum Thorpe is a wryly enigmatic Don Basilio with his dry, deep bass voice and calm interpretation of the ‘Calumny’ aria making the part seem coolly calculating and almost sinister, rather than the oddball he Basilio is often made to be. Berta’s single aria ‘Il vecchiotto cerca moglie’, commenting on the unruly action, is cheerily delivered with a sort of folkish informality in execution by Josephine Goddard

The English Concert’s performance is as engagingly nimble as the choreography, the colours and leanness of this period ensemble casting a fresh veneer on the music, with buoyant articulation and lithe textures that ideally capture its levity. Under Douglas Boyd’s direction it canters along at a comfortable pace without rushing or hectoring the overall flow of the work. In addition to the percussion which Rossini specified in the score, castanets add Spanish flair to a couple of numbers. Production and music work together, then, in this charming and fresh interpretation of a well-loved work which sensitively avoids excess, caricature or vulgarity.

Curtis Rogers

1 thought on “Garsington’s charming and fresh interpretation of Rossini’s well-loved <i>Il barbiere di Siviglia</i>”

  1. I think mention should also be made of the small but expert male chorus, who were particularly effective as the musicians accompanying ‘Ecco ridente’ at the start of the opera; they showed excellent individual and collective comic timing.

    Updated later – I’m replying to myself! Many apologies for not noticing the brief mention of the chorus on my first reading of the review. I still think they deserve a more fulsome mention!


Leave a Comment