Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia must be one of the most loved and played classics of the operatic stage. It is stuffed full of concert-room bon-bons and its simple, lively, farcical plot and action are as much a gift to a witty director as its vigorous roles are to a colourful cast. Of course, with too large a dose of pretentiousness, both director and cast can go horribly wrong, but last night’s performance at the Deutsche Oper, in the six year-old staging (‘47th performance’) of Katharina Thalbach, with the liveliest young cast of singer-actors imaginable, simply went oh-so-thoroughly right.
Mme Thalbach chose to take that favourite path of directors since the ark, and ‘frame’ the action. So we had the story of young Almaviva’s amorous exploits played out like a commedia dell’arte on a stage within a stage, while a bundle of present-day seaside Sevillians lounged around watching and occasionally getting involved. Just because it’s an old trick doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, and it works particularly well when decked out in bright and enjoyable south-of-Spanish scenery (Momme Röhrbein) and costumes (Guido Maria Kretschmer), and played with real gusto. It works less well when the ‘off-stage’ people do chorus acting and fidgety ‘business’ whilst the ‘on stage’ principals are singing an aria, or pursuing the story. But that didn’t happen too much. By and large, the show galloped along merrily and musically, and a grand time was had by all. And for that, we have to thank not only the production, but the players. As delicious a team as ever you could ask for. How grand to have a Rosina who could pass for a teenager, an Almaviva like a 20 year-old Errol Flynn, a Figaro who is a cheeky boyo and not an ageing buffo. Yes!
The opera is a little unfairly titled ‘The Barber of Seville’ (though I’m told it wasn’t originally), but the character of the finagling Figaro certainly has captured the world’s imagination. You didn’t need any imagination last night. This Figaro (Étienne Dupuis) was what I’ve always imagined he should be. I’ve used all my adjectives already, so I’ll just repeat them: young, lively, natural, athletic, humorous … and can he sing the music! After seeing Mons Dupuis as my definitive, dying Rodrigo (Don Carlo) I wondered what he’d make of comedy. I didn’t need to wonder. Just wait. Gagné.
That list of delighted adjectives applies equally forcefully to the ‘hero’ of the night, the Count Almaviva. If Mons Dupuis is my ideal Figaro, Matthew Newlin is my perfect Almaviva. He had me in serious chortles with his impersonation of a drunken soldier, with his fake Basilio, with his serenading of Rosina and his baffling of Dr Bartolo, and his ‘Ecco ridente in cielo’, sung in an effortlessly pure ‘Mozart’ tenor, was, for me, the musical gem of the night.
The lady in the tale, Rosina, doesn’t do much. She gets done to. But, on the way to her happy ending, she gets to sing the famous ‘Una voce poco fa’ and the almost as famous ‘Dunque io son’. What do you do with ‘Una voce?’. Well, for my taste, you don’t race through it. Stephanie Lauricella has a really lovely, creamy, even mezzo-soprano which can breeze without difficulty through the frills and trills of this classic showpiece, but I would like it to ‘tell’ more at a slightly steadier tempo. But that’s something folks have never agreed on. Anyway, Miss Lauricella was as bright and lively as her two companions, and the three made up a singing and comic acting trio of absolute choice.
Alongside the trio de tête, Noel Bouley made more out of the ‘butt of the comedy’ role of Dr Bartolo than I thought possible, Marko Mimica rumbled out a staunchly sonorous ‘Calunnia’ aria as Basilio, and Hulkar Sabirova flung out her high E, while the others took a breather, as Berta.
The stoutly-applauded orchestra under Moritz Gnann caught and helped the prevailing tendency for vivacity, but sometimes took it to excess. I wondered how the singers kept up (they didn’t some of the time). Or when they grabbed a breath!
But, for me, Il Barbiere di Siviglia rises or falls on vivacity, fun … and those three leading players. Which means that this performance of Rossini’s opera rose like my mother’s best soufflé.
And, you know, what pleases me? I came in humming the score. As one does. But I went out with pictures of Figaro dangling in the air, of Almaviva leaping about like Zorro, of Rosina in her Papuan Lampshade dress … and, of course, of the little burro who put in a cameo appearance. That pleases me, because opera is more than just singing the music. An opera should be a ‘show’. And last night sure was a show, in every way. A grand night out at the theatre.