Only a couple of weeks after a terrific high profile Traviata, the Royal Opera scored another success: the first revival of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier's 2005 production of Il barbiere di Siviglia left both audience and critics breathless, and a standing ovation in the theatre and five star reviews followed the opera's first night on 4 July.
Edward Seckerson of The Independent makes it clear that this Barber that the audience witnessed at Covent Garden has been a rare and memorable one: 'when did we last see it cast at such strength, sung with such tongue and vocal chord twisting relish, and conducted with such panache that every number did just that – stopped the show?' To this rhetorical question, the answer is unquestionable: it was this Barber that managed to achieve not only a high level of artistry, but also a strong emotional engagement with the public.
It is difficult to identify the strongest point of a performance in which each single element is outstanding. Tim Ashley of The Guardian is unambiguous: 'Musically […], it was bliss'. Nick Kimberley of the Evening Standard is especially thrilled by the purity of the vocal interpretation: 'The singing for once made it possible to believe that all Rossini's staccatos, crescendos and pitter-pattering consonants were a natural form of expression', he writes with astonishment.
Heroine of the night was definitely Joyce DiDonato who, after stumbling and breaking her foot in the second scene, never showed a moment of pain, and kept singing with ease and mastery. Rupert Christiansen of The Telegraph is amazed at DiDonato's demonstration of 'superb old-school professionalism', and he also praises her ability to use the walking stick first and the crutch later in order to achieve a 'great comic effect'.
In addition to her acting talent, Christiansen adds, she 'sang divinely'. Along the same lines, The Guardian comments that 'Even with that crutch, DiDonato's rebelliousness and gleaming tone shone through'. The Independent has no doubts either: 'she owns this role'.
Nick Kimberley reports DiDonato's comments on this unusual situation, after she was forced to perform the following performance in a wheelchair: 'If Moshe and Patrice had said before we started, "We're going to put you in a wheelchair", I would have declared it pure Eurotrash and stormed out. I got introduced to my wheelchair at about 5 o'clock and had just half an hour of preparation onstage beforehand. In the story, Rosina is caged; the beautiful thing is that tonight that became something quite literal: I felt trapped in the wheelchair. That helped dramatically. This was one of the most thrilling nights I've ever spent in the theatre'.
The male roles were superbly executed too. Applauses were rapturous for tenor Juan Diego Flórez. All critics noticed that his technical mastery, together with his unique charisma, made of his Count Almaviva a spectacle in itself. The combination of Flórez and DiDonato couldn't but be, of course, an example of vocal excellence. As the Evening Standard puts it, 'His duets with DiDonato perfectly demonstrated what bel canto means'. Richard Fairman of the Financial Times shares the same view, and states that Flórez is 'the Rossini tenor of the day': his ability to shape his difficult lines with meticulous precision is unmatched. In addition, Fairman praises the tenor's dramatic skills: he really comes across as a 'tall, dark youthful Spanish charmer'.
On the other hand, The Guardian criticizes slightly Flórez's tendency to overdo the most difficult passages, while appreciating his unquestionable talent: '[he] has fun slumming it in fatigues and over-decorates his lines a little, but his technique still dazzles and his arias brought the house down'.
The other protagonists shone too. All the critics agreed on stating that Alessandro Corbelli and Ferruccio Furlanetto coloured their roles with the necessary wit and passion. The Independent refers to Corbelli's Bartolo as an 'all bluster' role portrayed with 'great comic timing', and the FT highlights the singer's ability to demonstrate 'how much comic fun can be had with crusty old Doctor Bartolo'.
Tim Ashley also comments positively on the 'bad guys', and remarks that Alessandro Corbelli's 'cantankerous Bartolo nicely contrasted with Feruccio Furlanetto's odious Basilio'. Richard Fairman is amazed at Furlanetto's talent to portray a dark and intense caricature of his character. The Independent also adds that Furlanetto managed to portray his Don Basilio with hysteric and almost sinister undertones that made his performance a particularly strong one. Pietro Spagnoli as well was acclaimed by the critics. His Figaro was 'feisty' and 'had everybody's number', writes The Independent.
Nonetheless, some critics noticed that the production remains problematic. In particular, Tim Ashley argues that the boxy set is rigid and hideous, and 'there's too much stylisation for a comedy that deals with such themes as class, money and social mobility'.
Finally, one of the many stars of this performance was certainly Antonio Pappano: 'You know you are on to a good thing with Barber when the overture doesn't sound so familiar', Seckerson comments, explaining that the conductor's reading of the score made this Barber a unique experience of rediscovery of this hugely popular work. The Telegraph also has nothing but praises for Pappano, whose ability to coordinate his work with the artists on stage was superb: '[his] conducting was delightfully brisk and witty', Christiansen writes.
Few tickets remain for this memorable Barber. But no need to despair: on 15 July, the live broadcast from the ROH will bring Rossini's opera to big screens all over the UK. This will make sure that thousands of people will be able enjoy this latest Covent Garden spectacular achievement.
Il barbiere di Siviglia is at the Royal Opera House until 18 July.
For more information about BP Summer Big Screens visit the ROH's website
Photo Credits: Catherine Ashmore
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