S&H Opera review

ROSSINI The Barber of Seville ENO 11 April 2001 (PGW)
Christopher Maltman, Riccardo Simonetti (from April 20) Rosina: Christine Rice Count Almaviva: Toby Spence Dr Bartolo: Gordon Sandison Don Basilio: Mark Beesley Berta: Catherine Savory Fiorello: Leslie John Flanagan. Conductor Michael Lloyd

Two casts, drawn almost entirely from the ENO company ensemble, are fielded for this well-oiled revival of Jonathan Miller's 1987 production of The Barber in a felicitous English translation by Amanda & Anthony Holden.

The first is headed by Toby Spence as the besotted and much-disguised Count Almaviva in his courting days, Christopher Maltman as Figaro, the barber who runs most things in his part of Seville, and Christine Rice as the irresistible rich heiress Rosina, subject of all the schemes to prise her away from the fate worse than death threatened by her improbably lascivious old guardian, Gordon Sandison. They are well supported by a cast strong through to the minor characters, including the comic chorus of not-so-quiet masked serenaders depicted on the programme cover. Rossini's sparkling score is conducted with elegant brio and consideration for his singers by Michael Lloyd, who was recently admired conducting Nabucco on-stage and off and secured attention to detail from the orchestra, now below again in their familiar pit.

The sets (Tanya McCallin) are redolent of Spanish warmth and Miller's original humorous inventions are revivified by William Relton and as funny as ever. At the beginning there was a tendency for Spence & Maltman to force their voices, as if they were overawed by the sheer size of the huge auditorium facing them, but it soon settled down, and all the principals held the house with their inventive escapades and marvellous singing opportunities. Does any opera boast such a succession of wonderful tunes that everyone knows? They gain immeasurably from being heard in proper context.

Gordon Sandison was a low key Bartolo who relished his every opportunity and acted with engaging wit, whether dozing or fulminating, and was hilarious in echoing the fake soldier's bizarre tics. There was quite a G&S feeling about some of the elaborate stage business.

For me, the star was the delicious Christine Rice [Pict - Bill Rafferty] and I see no reason why she should not progress to become one of the great mezzos of the decade. She has the rich tone required for Rossini's heroines and should become an ideal Cinderella. Movement and gesture were always in character and at ease, and her flourishes and roulades were in perfect control in Rossini's own music and the traditional exuberant display interpolated in Rosina's 'music lesson'.

The programme book was as heavy and learned as anyone could wish, with a wealth of illustrated background essays; what a contrast to those flimsy rip-offs at the West End theatres! I hope to catch the alternative cast later in the season. A refreshing evening after a dismal Trovatore.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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