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Rossini, Il barbiere di Siviglia: Soloists, The Royal Opera House Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Antonio Pappano (conductor). Royal Opera House, London, 4.7.2009 (MB)

Figaro – Pietro Spagnoli
Rosina – Joyce DiDonato
Count Almaviva – Juan Diego Flórez
Doctor Bartolo – Alessandro Corbelli
Don Basilio – Ferruccio Furlanetto
Fiorello – Changhan Lim
Berta – Jennifer Rhys-Davies
Officer – Christopher Lackner
Ambrogio – Bryan Secombe
Notary – Andrew Macnair

Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser (directors)
Christian Fenouillat (designs)
Agostino Cavalca (costumes)
Christophe Forey (lighting)

The Royal Opera House Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)

Pietro Spagnoli as Figaro and Juan Diego Flórez as Almaviva

This was the best performance I have heard from Antonio Pappano at the Royal Opera House, or indeed anywhere else. I cannot bring myself to be wildly excited by nineteenth-century Italian opera – clearly unlike most of the audience – but this is clearly his thing and he would be well advised to concentrate upon this repertoire. Wagner, Beethoven, and Berg are avowedly not and he would be equally well advised to steer clear of them. The orchestra was on colourful, sprightly form, right from the beginning of the overture, and there was a clear sense of structure throughout. (How very unlike this conductor’s Wagner!) Whatever Rossini’s musical and dramatic limitations, his command of musical form, albeit in a somewhat old-fashioned way, is always apparent, a clear contrast with, for instance, Verdi. There are no depths to be plumbed here but there is a musical story to be old – and told it was.

Moreover, Pappano was extremely fortunate in his cast, which could scarcely have been bettered. Joyce DiDonato proved a heroine in more than one sense. Injuring her leg at some point during the first act, she insisted upon carrying on, despite her pain – and her crutches. Singing of cramp in her foot caused much amusement all round. None of this, however, affected her pinpoint coloratura accuracy, nor as expressive a delivery as Rossini’s style allows: far better to be slightly distanced, which she was not, than to approach the mawkishness of the composer’s dubious successors. Juan Diego Flórez was equally astonishing in his despatch of the technically fiendish demands his part presents. He also showed himself to be a fine comic actor, never seeking the limelight, in spite of a disruptive audience reaction that owed more to the football stadium than to dramatic appreciation. Florez’s voice is not large but he marshals it extraordinarily well. I fell to wondering whether it might be heard to advantage in more satisfying repertoire. Perhaps certain, but only certain, Mozart roles? In any case, the question would appear redundant, since he seems quite happy to devote himself to Rossini and Donizetti.

Joyce DiDonato as Rosina

Pietro Spagnoli substituted for Simon Keenlyside. This Figaro had plenty of stage presence and a good command of musical character too. If not so dominant as might sometimes be the case, this was owed to the strength of ensemble rather than to any deficiency on Spagnoli’s part. Speaking of ensemble, there was at least as much joy to be had from Alessandro Corbelli’s Bartolo and Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Basilio as anyone else. Their native command of Italian paid great dividends, in terms of the natural, unaffected quality of their comedy and verbal response. Jennifer Rhys-Davies proved an equally characterful, indeed rather lovable, Berta, although it seemed a pity that she was made to play her aria for laughs, when a degree of poignancy would have seemed more fitting. The Royal Opera Chorus was on excellent form too.

I could not warm to Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s production, any more than I had the first time around. This, I suspect, is largely because it tries so very hard to be ‘heartwarming’, rather like those dreadful ‘romantic comedies’ that so plague modern British cinema, or, perhaps worse still, the Roberto Benigni film, La vita è bella. The latter’s treatment of its subject matter seems to me to border on the offensive. There is nothing by which to be offended here, but the bright, primary colours, the designs that resemble boxes of sweets and their contents, and the general tone of whimsy: for some of us grumpier souls, it is perhaps all a bit much. More seriously, Rossini’s formalism, the alienating quality his characters might be persuaded to take on, is shunned in favour of crowd-pleasing sentimentalism. Still, the musical performances were without exception of a very high standard.

Mark Berry 

Pictures © Bill Cooper

Note: As we go to press,  it has just been announced that Joyce DiDonato actually fractured her ankle during this performance and will sing the rest of the run from a wheelchair. "I don't know that I have ever experienced an evening quite like this one before,' she said, 'but I'm certain that I have invoked a new policy regarding well-wishers. From here on out, I declare that no-one, please, ever, ever, ever, wish me again, in the American fashion, to 'break a leg'."   Ed


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