Another Barber of Seville revival proves ENO remains a joy and a gem

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rossini, The Barber of Seville: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Roderick Cox (conductor). London Coliseum, 22.2.2024. (CC)

Charles Rice (Figaro) © Clive Barda

Director – Sir Jonathan Miller
Revival Director – Peter Relton
Designer – Tanya McCallin
Lighting designer – Tom Mannings
Revival Lighting designer – Marc Rosette
Translation – Amanda and Anthony Holden

Figaro – Charles Rice
Rosina – Ava Dodd
Count Almaviva – Innocent Masuku
Doctor Bartolo – Simon Bailey
Don Basilio – Alastair Miles
Berta – Lesley Garrett
Fiorillo – Parick Alexander Keefe
An Official – Geraint Hylton
A Notary – Paul Sheehan

Jonathan Miller’s cherished production of Rossini’s The Barber if Seville returns to the London Coliseum revived by Peter Relton. It was lovely to see what looked like a full house for this performance; although a shadow was cast when a pre-performance announcement was made: Anna Devin, due to sing Rosina, was indisposed and her place would be taken by Ava Dodd (who had sung Second Niece in Peter Grimes for the company, and who will also sing Rosina, scheduled this time, at the matinée on February 27).

The conductor, Roderick Cox, making his English National Opera and UK debut, seemed to have some problems from the start so an unsettled feeling continued throughout a performance which was largely on the slow side. Tempos were uniformly just under (or more than ‘just’), making it harder for the cast to bring the necessary life to the evening. All credit to the orchestra (and chorus) of ENO though, not only for sustaining the lines but also for their near-perfect execution over a long evening; the second act storm was particularly impressive.

Miller’s production, first seen in 1987 at ENO, brings together farce and the commedia dell’arte (the latter immediately obvious in the costumes of the opening scene). The interior setting, bright and inviting with plenty of places to ‘hide, in designer Tanya McCallin’s realisation’, could easily be part of a West End comedy. Tom Mannings’s lighting was on point throughout and seen in the safe hands of revival lighting designer Marc Rosette on this occasion.

ENO’s The Barber of Seville © Clive Barda

The Barber himself, Figaro, was Charles Rice, returning after his performance in as Sir Robert Cecil in ENO’s Gloriana last season (Mark Berry’s review here). A commanding stage presence, Rice sings with a strong voice and pleasing tone; he is dramatically convincing throughout. Ava Dodd – currently a member of Stadttheater Klagenfurt – made a huge impression. If initially her upper register felt a touch hard, that evened out as the evening progressed; more importantly, she has all the agility Rosina requires, delivering a standout ‘Una voce poco fa’ in the first act. Even better, her soprano voice extends down to the lower reaches perfectly (Rosina can also be sung by a mezzo-soprano, but Dodd seems to be the best of both words). I look forward very much to encountering Ava Dodd onstage again.

The Count was sung by South African tenor Innocent Masuku, an ENO Harewood Artist who had appeared in multiple roles last season (in Gloriana, Carmen, The Dead City and The Yeoman of the Guard). If his voice felt a touch reedy and insubstantial at times, he is a fine comedic talent. Simon Bailey’s Bartolo (last seen in ENO’s The Rheingold as Fasolt: my review here) set the standard for all Bartolos. As Don Basilio, the well-loved and universally admired Alastair Miles (who sang the same role in 2017) was simply perfect, his ‘La calunnia’ dripping with experience.

How wonderful, too, to re-encounter Lesley Garrett, whose singing career has encompassed a sheaf of roles internationally and whose television appearances and albums have endeared her to many. She was an enchanting Berta (complete with authentic North Yorkshire accent). All of the smaller roles were well taken, as one has come to expect from an ensemble house like ENO, with ENO Harewood Artist Patrick Alexander Keefe an especially strong Fiorillo.

A. The company launched my operatic journey way back in the early 1980s with a Rusalka, closely followed by a The Valkyrie. These days, each performance seems like a gift, the trials and tribulations of the musicians thoroughly undeserved.

Colin Clarke

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