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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Il barbiere di Siviglia - comic opera in two acts (1816)
Libretto by Cesare Sterbini based on Beaumarchais’s play.
First performed at the Teatro Argentina, Rome, 20 February 1816
Count Almaviva, Roberto Saccà (ten); Figaro, a barber, Dalibor Jenis (bar); Bartolo, a doctor and ward of Rosina, Carlos Chausson (buffa bar); Rosina, Bartolo’s ward, Joyce DiDonato (mezzo); Basilio, a singing teacher, Kristinn Sigmundsson (bass); Berta, Dr. Bartolo’s housekeeper, Jeanette Fischer (mezzo); Fiorello, servant of Count Almaviva, Nicholas Garrett (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of l’Opéra National de Paris/Bruno Campanella
rec. live, Opéra National de Paris, April 2002.
Stage direction by Coline Serreau.
Set Design by Jean-Marc Stehlé and Antoine Fontaine.
Costumes by Elsa Pavanel
co-production with French television
Directed for TV and Video by Ariane Adriani
Sound format, DD 5.1. Dolby Digital. DTS Suround Sound. LPCM stereo.
Picture format, 16:9 anamorphic NTSC.
Introductory notes in English, German and French
Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish and Italian

Who would be an opera house Intendant of one of the big four houses? You get to choose the repertoire. OK, you have occasionally to satisfy the avant-garde brigade. But if you stick to the mainstream the public will fill the seats. If you are good at forward planning, say five years ahead, and as long you can meet the fees, you get the pick of the singers. But then come the problems. They are called producers and designers. If you appoint a Sellars or Pountney or Peter Konwitschny you will have an idea of what you will get. If this includes boos from the audience and empty seats after the reviews hit the paper, you know whom to blame. In those situations, and as if that wasn’t enough, your appointed conductor might take his baton home too. When Gerard Mortier succeeded Hugues Gall at Paris he imported the La Clemenza di Tito that he had commissioned when in charge at Brussels’ La Monnaie, and subsequently taken to Salzburg, before giving the sets a lick of paint and presenting it in Paris (see review). He knew that some would love it whilst many would hate its posturing. When Hugues Gall commissioned Coline Serreau to produce, and the duo of Jean-Marc Stehlé and Antoine Fontaine to do the sets, had he any idea that the outcome would be the quirkiest Barber of Seville to hit any stage for many a day? If he had, would he have gone ahead? Reports indicate that later in the summer when the production was seen in the theatre, with a different cast, the director took three pages of the programme to explain the thinking behind the production and sets. Jean-Marc Stehlé had designed an enchanting Die Zauberflöte the previous season. But having spared no expense - and the sets are opulent - would Hugues Gall, or you in that position, expect a taliban Barber of Seville? I doubt it.
Of Rossini’s thirty-nine operas Il Barbiere is the only one to have remained in the repertoire since its composition. It was one of the works the composer squeezed in during his contract as Musical Director of the Royal Theatres at Naples where he was supposed to present two new works every year. In Rome, and in some haste, it was decided that the opera would be based on Beaumarchais’s play Le Barbier de Séville. For Rossini this posed a difficulty in that Paisiello had set an opera by the same name in 1782 and both it, and the composer, were greatly respected. Rossini moved to ensure Paisiello took no offence and the opera was presented as Almaviva, ossia L’inutile precauzione (The useless precaution). Despite Rossini’s efforts Paisiello’s supporters created a disturbance on the first night and turned it into a fiasco. On the second night the composer was tactfully ill and did not attend, despite a stipulation in his contract. The performance was an unprecedented success and the cast and supporters walked to Rossini’s lodgings carrying candles and singing tunes from the opera. After its initial seven performances in Rome the opera began to be called Il Barbiere di Siviglia. It quickly spread throughout Italy and reached London on the 10 March 1818 and New York the following year. In the intervening years it has proved indestructible by producers and/or designers. The accompanying booklet has brief paragraphs on Rossini, the opera and a synopsis and all of this is in English, German and French. There is also a comprehensive list of the generous tracking.
In this Paris production the curtain goes up on what looks like the countryside of the North West Frontier, the renowned border of Afghanistan.  Almaviva appears in what might be Turkish or Arabian dress and his retinue pop up from behind the rocks complete with turbans and flowing robes; and beards of course. There are many jerky movements to the music (Chs. 2-5). It seems that the long essay in the Paris programme sought to justify - sorry, explain - this approach by referring to the Moorish tradition in Seville. I am not an expert on Spanish history, but I do know, having visited the Alhambra, that the Moors were dominant in Granada at some period in the Middle Ages. As the stage rotates from a front view of Bartolo’s palace, with the necessary balcony, to Rosina’s apartment in the home of Don Bartolo it resembles the harem of the lovely Alhambra Palace in its opulent décor. On the balcony, in response to Almaviva’s serenade, Rosina appears in an extravagantly patterned burkha. Previously, the production had gone outside the bounds of any cohesion of period with the arrival of Dalibor Jenis as Figaro. He was dressed in flowing robes with a mini-, multi-coloured, parasol fixed onto his head and large tinted spectacles covering his eyes. A box on his back unfolds to reveal his barber’s accoutrements and the lot lights up (Ch. 7)! His introductory Largo al factotum is undistinguished as is the rest of his singing. His voice is somewhat monochrome and lacks the ideal flexibility. On occasions he doesn’t quite know what he should be doing - or so it seems - as when the lovers prevaricate instead of escaping from Bartolo’s clutches (Chs. 43-44). By then his headgear had changed and at one time included two pairs of sunglasses round a different head-covering. When Doctor Bartolo appears he is the epitome of a Mullah with turban, flowing robes and a beard. The words are changed when it comes to the shaving scene (Ch. 37) with the massaging of his face being simulated and his beard trimmed. Carlos Chausson’s singing leaves me yearning for one of the better Italian buffo baritones, his voice yielding little variety of colour to the inflections in his aria A un dottor della mia sorte (Ch. 22). He too has a liking for jerky movements to the music. The physically imposing Basilio of Kristinn Sigmundsson, a frightening Mullah figure, has little of the sonority or gravitas one hopes for in his La calunnia (Ch. 18). By the end of the performance I really felt that none of the lower register male singers had really come to terms with what the producer was about, and had received little direction from him.  On the rostrum Bruno Campanella did his own rather languid thing, which at least allowed Rosina, in particular her roulades, to bring some vitality to the proceedings.
Given the foregoing a lot depends on the singing and acting of the lovers Almaviva and Rosina. At least Roberto Saccà’s acting was more convincing than that of his male colleagues. Again the production could not resist idiosyncrasy as Almaviva flashed a modern EU passport at the town guard to reveal his identity after arriving at Dr, Bartolo’s and acting drunk; a drunk Muslim is an incongruity if ever there was one (Chs. 25-27). His singing is rather dry and has nothing of the ideal heady mellifluousness or ornaments in Ecco ridente in cielo (Ch. 3). He is not given his act 2 aria. Saccà looks suitably young and is ardent in his wooing of Rosina sung by the American Joyce DiDonato. Although she looks a little mature in the close-ups, her singing and acting are the justification for the purchase of this issue. An alumna of the Houston Opera Studio (class of 1998) she has already made an impact at the best addresses and on record having sung Cenerentola at La Scala and was a big hit at Pesaro in 2005. Ms DiDonato was the star of the new production of Il Barbiere at Covent Garden in December of the same year and I greatly admired her singing in the recent La Cenerentola from Naxos recorded in November 2004 (see review). Her singing has brilliance, richness of tone, a wide variety of colour allied to vocal flexibility. DiDonato’s trill is a delight whilst her legato cannot be bettered. She is the ideal Rossini diva. Her rendering of Una voco poco fa (Ch. 15) was the vocal highlight of the evening and the audience justifiably received it with acclaim. Concentration on that showpiece aria is not to ignore her part in the remainder of the opera. When she is on stage and involved she brings out the best in her colleagues. At the end of the opera, the two lovers go out into the bleak mountainous countryside of the introduction, but with a difference. As they walk away from Bartolo’s palace, trees sprout up and open their leaves before them. Some honeymoon beckons in a moonlit oasis. I hope Rosina gets a better deal from Almaviva than she did from Bartolo. As we know from Beaumarchais and Mozart, life with the Count wasn’t destined to be a bed of roses in castle or in oasis.
I expect the December 2005 Covent Garden production by the Belgium duo of Patrice Courier and Moshe Leiser, conducted by Mark Elder and broadcast on British TV over Christmas, will appear on DVD in due course. Although not wholly ideally cast, or a traditional production, it surrounds DiDonato’s singing and acting with more colleagues of standing than are found here. For those who cannot wait, and do not mind seeing a Barbiere unusually located, then this issue is worth investigating for DiDonato’s singing in particular. The production is also, perhaps, convincing evidence as to why this opera, of the whole of Rossini’s oeuvre, has never been out of the repertoire. The music and the story can surmount whatever is thrown at it. Mind you, I am thankful that no producer, at least to my knowledge, has deconstructed it, set it in a concentration camp or during the first Gulf War. I hope Konwitschny does not see that as a challenge, fusty old conservative operagoer that I am!
Robert J Farr


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