Memories of the Barber

I’d better catch up quickly on Il Barbiere di Siviglia at Covent Garden the other day (er, week?).  I went on the Friday the 21st AND Monday 24th, which was the result of taking friends on the Monday and being seduced (later) by a stalls seat offer for the preceding Friday.

Row B of the stalls, relatively central, was an odd experience.  Acoustically not as revelatory as expected and, viewpoint-wise, alternately thrilling and neck-achingly inconvenient (especially for surtitles).  When the box-shaped set lifts at the end of Act 1 for the rolling coup-de-théatre, it was as though you were watching people perform opera on the roof of your house.  And the tickets were (I’m sorry to inform the marketing wonks at the ROH) through the ‘Danny Knows Best‘ initiative, that rather game but slightly clunky attempt to seduce reality-show junkies through the doors of the nation’s most venerable lyric theatre.   Ah, well this old Friend got a bit of a treat anyhow.  Claiming the free champagne in the Floral Hall was like day 1 of the Horrids’ sale, though…  You wouldn’t believe it, but the Amphi bar is a much more pleasant experience!

Anyhow, the details of the production, which has been doing the rounds since about 2005 (as long as that??), are well-rehearsed and, suffice to say, that this was an efficient revival.  Everyone threw themselves into it with gusto.  I have to confess to adoring the production: I think it is the perfect example of this kind of bright, modern, stripped-back efficiency in production, with little that intrudes at all and many little details that add to the story.  I can’t now imagine enjoying a Barbiere performed in faux-Spanish period wigs and bustles…

The star – as has also been well-rehearsed – was Aleksandra Kurzak. Her tone and delivery was crisp, bright and strong.  Her coloratura had that hold-your-breath effect when in full flow, with fabulous interpolations into Una voce poco fa and Dunque io son.  She was every inch the minx and, if DiDonato had wrung just a little more pathos from the excellently-staged storm scene, and I have to admit just slightly preferring a mezzo tone in the role, then overall there’s relatively little to spoil the absolute enjoyment of the performance.

In Kurzak, Ildar Abdrazakov (Basilio), and Levente Molnár (Figaro), I could hardly have dared to hope for as good a follow-up to that storming 2007 cast.  John Osborn raised inevitable comparisons with Florez, which must be horribly daunting for any tenor in this repertoire, and especially with JDF giving his all (well, most of it) down the road of the RFH.  Anyhow, comparisons were not at all to be shied away from: Osborn had a good, solid sound and technique and I actually wished he had had a go at Cessa di più resistere – on the basis of his earlier florid passages, I think it would have been an enjoyable performance.  No matter.  He didn’t have the natural stage grace of Florez, but then Florez’s acting isn’t his strong suit either, so all in all, Osborn didn’t thrill, but he certainly did entertain and reward.

Bruno Praticò is the established – almost ‘house’ – buffo around these parts and brought a more free-form expressionistic quality – complete with grunts, huffs and extra ad libs – to Bartolo.  His voice is coarser and more nasal than Corbelli (our other buffo contender), but it was a larger-than-life portrayal, and slightly darker and more edgy than Corbelli.  There was a violence under the surface…

The one major downside was the conducting.  Generally efficient, it lacked the sort of sparkle that a Mackerras or Pappano bring to proceedings.  The close of Act 1 in particular – on both nights, but more significantly on the first – brought a very noticeable coming-apart of stage and pit, with the men in particular finding it difficult to co-ordinate with Rory McDonald’s beat.  It meant that this glorious galloping close became very slightly uncomfortable as the mechanics of the music’s production were laid bare.

I should also add that first outing was enlivened by some unintentional comedy, and near show-stopping corpsing, brought on by the early collapse of the harpsichord in Act 2.  Normally, the instrument is set up for Rosina to bring down on her rampage around the room during the storm scene; this time it came down just before Figaro went into the cupboard to fetch towels (Kurzak having slipped and steadied herself on it).  The resulting shock-and-giggles meant that Kurzak spent the next 15mins peering over the top of the music paper from the singing lesson to hide her grinning, and others occasionally turned away to regain their composure.  The comedy was really given lift when Bartolo, having lamented the damaged harpsichord in mime, went into the cupboard to investigate Figaro’s damage in there following the crash sound.  The immediate subsequent line, from Almaviva (“Now we’re alone…”) was a cue to gesture at Rosina to help him fix the harpsichord.  So when Bartolo emerged from the cupboard lamenting his broken dishes, plates and tureen, he broke off mid-flow for a surprised reaction to the now-restored harpsichord.  It was a very funny moment indeed…

So comedy, both intentional and unintentional.  Next opera outing: the legendary poisoner Lucrezia Borgia at ENO, and then the woman all-too-willing to ingest substances – Anna Nicole – at Covent Garden.  Should be an interesting month.

One comment

  1. I’ve been twice now, opening night and then grabbed a return on Tuesday where, amazingly, I blagged a (free) upgrade to the middle of the Orchestra Stalls. I too, was surprised how it was a bit of a duller sound than where I normally sit in the Amphi.

    I definitely preferred Luciano Botelho over John Osborn as Almaviva, although to be fair I think Osborn was really suffering with first night nerves and he definitely settled down as the night went on. Botelho had an extremely light voice and looking like a young Florez, I warmed to him as the night went on. Kurzac, though very good, was definitely better on opening night – she was still the star of the show though.

    Didn’t really warm to Bruno Practico and couldn’t help constantly making (unfair) comparisons with the peerless Alessandro Corbelli, whose acting and general movement around the stage, not to mention patter, was better.t

    I agree completely with what you say about it being so fresh, colourful and pared down – the best type of modern production, something that adds to the understanding of the story without taking anything away – I felt the same about Leiser and Caurier’s ‘Il Turco’ which I still absolutely adore.

    Just as an addendum, I noticed on Tuesday’s performance that at least twice, at incorrect moments, the stage began to shift up a few feet at one end, leaving the stage a bit unbalanced, not that it had any bearing on proceedings.

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