“These modern operas are so unfathomable. The story’s always feeble.” Rossini and his librettist, Cesare Sterbini, may have been making a joke against themselves when they wrote that line, but though The Barber of Seville is now two hundred years old it’s a line that can still raise a laugh.
Jonathan Miller’s production for English National Opera is also getting on in years, first staged in 1987, it has been around for an eighth of the opera’s own existence; its strength lies in the infrastructure it creates for the characters. Tanya McCallin’s attractive design recreates an ancient Sevillean street, complete with classical column and shrine. This is then rolled back to reveal the interior of Doctor Bartolo’s house, stuffed with globes and anatomical models, a smaller performance area within which the characters feel larger than life.
Although it is ENO’s philosophy to stage everything in English, the decision to do so here pays particular dividends. It helps the audience to feel that Figaro is addressing them directly in ‘Largo Al Factotum’, while the numerous asides demanded by both the opera, and this production in particular, also benefit from this immediacy of connection. In Amanda and Anthony Holden’s witty and perceptive translation, the lines are in the spirit of the original while creating jokes that work just as well in their new tongue: when Count Almaviva repeatedly gets Doctor Bartolo’s name wrong, he ends up uttering ‘Doctor Barnardo’, ‘Bastardo’ and ‘Bungalow’.
From amongst the strong cast two performances stand out in particular. The first is Andrew Shore as Bartolo, who combines a firm baritone voice with impeccable comic timing to create a picture of puffed up pomposity. Encountering cramp at every turn, his performance of ‘A un dottor della mia sorte’ generates laughs in abundance as he traps his pince-nez in the piano lid and then struggles to set himself free. While he is very much the villain of the piece, he ensures that we cannot help but feel a little sorry for him as he takes one step after another towards his own destruction.
Lucy Crowe is also brilliant as Rosina, her facial expressions in turn conveying self-knowledge, determination, fear and boredom. Her soprano voice combines purity of tone with perfect phrasing and enunciation, and her performance of ‘Una voce poco fal’ sees her toss out coloratura with ease. If Andrew Kennedy’s mature voice does not achieve the same level of light suppleness that some tenors bring to the role of Count Almaviva, his performance is no less effective for that. His rendition of ‘Ecco ridente in cielo’ achieves a good balance between an exaggerated vocal performance that’s in line with his character and a musically versatile sound. Although he presents an image of dashing youth, he also convinces us that in just a few years he could become the authoritarian, brutish Count of The Marriage of Figaro.
As Figaro, Benedict Nelson establishes a fine rapport with the audience, rolling off the tricky lines of ‘Largo al factotum’ with a glint in his eye. David Soar’s deep bass voice comes to the fore in Don Basilio’s ode to calumny, although just as important to the execution of the aria are Andrew Shore’s silent reactions to Soar’s own dramatic gestures. Katherine Broderick brings a touch of class to the small role of Berta, which makes it a shame that Rossini only wrote one aria for the housekeeper. In the pit, Jaime Martin, a flautist now making his ENO conducting debut, delivers with a precision that elicits all of the beauty and charm from Rossini’s score without ever indulging in histrionics.
Adrian Powter plays Doctor Bartolo on 13th and 15th March, and Ilona Domnich sings the role of Rosina on 15th March.