Rossini: Il barbiere di Siviglia

The Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 5 July 2009 4 stars

Juan Diego FlorezNeither the indisposition of Simon Keenlyside as Figaro, nor Joyce DiDonato's sprained ankle, nor even the momentary malfunction of the surtitles, could prevent this from being a magical evening.

Outstanding singing from the principals, and most especially Peruvian tenor superstar Juan Diego Flórez, ensured musical standards were high, and even if Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier's 2005 production of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia remains problematic in some respects, it still delivers a fair dose of charm and humour.

I think the opening scene is especially cute: the curtain opens to reveal a false proscenium with footlights. To the right is Rosina's balcony, completely caged; to the left is a tree, in which Flórez's Almaviva ensconces himself to serenade his beloved; at the back is an elegant sliver of a moon. Then comes the surprise: the chorus bumble onto the stage with musical instruments with which to accompany Almaviva's song – an LSO-sized orchestra, no less. It's atmospheric and beautiful, and the loud cheers that greeted Flórez's cavatina showed that the audience was in a great mood.

The directors take the theme of Rosina's cage a little too far, though, in my opinion, and even though they've revisited the Personenregie of the production in a lot of detail, adding plenty of new humour along the way, I think Christian Fenouillat's designs will always be a bit of a stumbling block. Significantly, Bartolo's house is without windows – that's how he keeps Rosina in his net – and some comic business is derived from sliding panels opening up to allow Figaro's ladder to appear, or a little staircase down which Alessandro Corbelli's hilarious Doctor Bartolo is pushed. It's also sweet how Rosina appears on a spotty chair through a trapdoor to deliver 'Una voce poco fa'.

Juan Diego FlorezBut the pastel colours of the backdrop make for a murky setting, one which sometimes undermine the humour and focus of the direction, and Agostino Cavalca's costumes don't always stand out as well as they could. At times, I longed for the exotic warmth of Beaumarchais' Seville – it's in the title, after all. And the conclusion of the first-act finale is still a complete mess: the box set rises into the air and the cast are flung around to reflect the text of the manic, confused stretta of the finale.

Still, none of that takes away from the overall achievement of as lavish a cast as the Royal Opera has fielded in recent times. Flórez's Almaviva is absolutely magical, his silken tone, easy coloratura, immaculate pitching and musicality coming to the fore in the second act particularly, with a three-minute ovation greeting his aristocratic rendition of 'Cessa di più resistere'.

Joyce DiDonatoPoor Joyce DiDonato fell in Act I and sprained her ankle, and had to hobble about on a crutch for the remainder of the evening (drawing huge laughter on her second-act appearance when Rosina complains of cramp in her foot). Her first aria took a while to get into full flow, but 'Dunque io son' was absolutely delightful, and she was a powerhouse in the second act, seemingly unimpaired by the pain in her foot. The eccentric staging of the tempesta required her to kick the leg off the harpsichord, bash one of the footlights and push over a huge wardrobe, but she managed even this, so with her unimpeachable technique and gorgeous tone she was an audience favourite.

Two veterans almost stole the show: Corbelli's Bartolo looks to be one of his very finest creations, rather warm and cuddly, and misguided rather than purely nasty, while Ferruccio Furlanetto gave perhaps the most perfect performance of the evening as Don Basilio, both looking and sounding the part from the word go. I warmed less to Pietro Spagnoli's Figaro – he was charming, but the voice was not of the same calibre of the other principals – but Jennifer Rhys-Davies' Berta was completely endearing and Young Artist Changhan Lim once more stood out in the small role of Fiorello.

At a couple of moments, there was a lack of co-ordination between stage and pit, but otherwise Antonio Pappano's conducting deserves great praise. The magical quality that characterised the recent Traviata – a lightness of texture and solidarity of purpose amongst the musicians – came frequently to the fore, especially in the tempesta, which I've never heard played so well, even on record. Playing the harpsichord continuo himself also helped the evening's momentum, and it was another triumph for the ROH Music Director.

Very few tickets remain for the production, but if you can't get a day seat, don't despair: the performance on 15 July will be broadcast live to big screens around the country, including London's Trafalgar Square and Manchester's Exchange Square. Don't miss it.

By Dominic McHugh

Photos credits: Catherine Ashmore

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DiDonatoRelated articles:

Interview with Joyce DiDonato
Interview with Renée Fleming
Interview with Antonio Pappano
Interview with Alessandro Corbelli