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
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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