Is Rossini’s Barber of Seville the quintessential opera buffa? In terms of its musical structure, plot (old man battles young, aristocratic fop over pretty rich girl and loses), and witty dénouement, perhaps. But “quitessential,” like “definitive,” always raises eyebrows these days. Theoretically, one might get away with its usage; practically, in reality even, it is much harder. After all, bias ensures that “the definitive performance of The Barber of Seville” is myth. It does not exist. The “Largo” will never be quite fast enough nor will “Una voce” ever have quite enough (high) notes. This is, of course, a gift in the sense that every time those hundreds of musical notes between the inanimate covers are realized as performance audiences are privy to something slightly different, fresh, exciting for the first time or all over again. But gifts can be paid for terribly.
Although live performance and the mechanics of the global opera industry transcendentally allow for new interpretations of character, subtle nuances in inflection depending on the (star) performers, new trappings for the music, and--always--raw emotional feeling to invigorate the senses and soul, they also allow for the more mundane (or worse: banal) opposite. This is the inherent risk so thrilling in live drama. On the whole, performance never squarely falls into one category or the other; it is usually a mix of both sublime perfection and, at the same time, dull mediocrity. English National Opera’s eleventh revival of Jonathan Miller’s charming production (this time round “revived” by Peter Relton) certainly wobbles between the two. Returning to basics, dare I say essentials, is a good way to start.
It is extraordinarily difficult to perform Rossini’s music well and to sustain its momentum. But the music begins and ends with verve: sparkle, flair, elegance, and commitment. This performance had very little of that. The women were generally stronger than the men, but only Lucy Crowe, as Rosina, displayed these qualities consistently. Even if her diction was slightly lazy at times, a la late-Joan Sutherland, she really was in a league of her own. Her bright, clarion tone and the ease with which she sang were a welcome beacon amidst what was otherwise a fairly cloudy performance.
Benedict Nelson sang an even if somewhat lackluster Figaro, although he does have a sure sense of comic timing that, when developed further, will no doubt be markedly successful. His fine stage presence is a testament to that. As the lecherous Doctor Bartolo, Andrew Shore gave a fiery performance that was full of witticisms, excellent diction, and finely declaimed phrases. David Soar was an excellent Don Basilio; his repeated grabs for the money as he said his “sick” farewells in Act II were very well done. As the “other” ENO Harewood Artist, Katherine Broderick was a well-developed Berta, her large voice suiting perfectly her characterization.
Andrew Kennedy was an interesting choice for Almaviva; interesting in the sense that one couldn’t really understand why he was cast at all. In the first act, his coloratura was messy to the point that it was both painful for the ears and, more surprisingly, for the eyes. Although Kennedy loosened up considerably by the second act, precision still eluded him. Perhaps Rossini is not quite his niche yet.
Of course, Jamie Martin, making his debut, was a conductor who brought intelligence and suppleness to ENO’s orchestra; the overture and the finale of Act I were both well-controlled and finely phrased, though it was difficult to ignore that his performance also lacked that coveted Rossinian verve. All the ingredients were ready to form something magnificent, but, as sometimes happens in live performance, failed to come together as a cohesive whole, its individual parts not quite up to the task. At least the cast proved unequivocally that there really is no such thing as a “definitive” performance.
Photos: Alastair Muir