When Act One lasts nearly two hours and the right people still aren’t married, one could be forgiven for spending the interval pondering how many more laments, double-crossings, betrayals, misunderstandings, machinations and plots can be encountered before the happily-ever-after we’re so clearly heading for. A lot, is the answer. As comic operas go, Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) is pretty funny.
Rosina loves wealthy Count Almaviva (disguised as poor-but-charming Lindoro), and her evil guardian, Doctor Bartolo, wants to marry her himself. With the help of the town barber, Figaro, Rosina and Almaviva dupe Bartolo and the final number leaves us in no doubt that Rosina and Almaviva will have “unbounded joy” forevermore, and Figaro receives a hefty purse. All’s well that ends well, but goodness it takes a long time getting there.
On the whole, the length isn’t a problem, as the orchestra rip through Rossini’s score (under the vigorous direction of Mark Elder) and there are enough cracking tunes to keep it entertaining. Cesare Sterbini’s libretto is just self-referential and knowing enough to be funny without becoming excruciating, and Agostina Cavalca’s vibrant costumes and Christian Fenouillat’s stripy set ensure that there’s plenty to excite the eye.
It is, of course, the singing that take centre stage, though, despite the neon brightness of costumes and set – and despite the end of Act One when the entire set impressively lifts up and starts rocking back and forth. This feat of engineering reflects the confusion of the characters (one double-cross too many), but does feel rather heavy-handed and unnecessary in what is otherwise an enjoyably light-hearted production.
Lucas Meachem’s Figaro has a beautiful rich baritone and an infectious sense of fun. The famous ‘Largo al factotum’ aria (the one that contains the immortal line: “Figaro! Figaro! Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!”) is hugely entertaining, as Meachem makes his merry way through the audience and his voice soars through the Royal Opera House. Alessandro Corbelli, as nasty Doctor Bartolo) is also in possession of a fine voice and some excellent comic timing.
Michele Angelini as the dashing Count Almaviva (in tomato-red suit and frilly yellow shirt) has a much lighter voice than the other men, and his tenor sometimes feels overpowered. In his duets with Serena Malfi’s Rosina, though, this lightness of tone complements Malfi’s sweet soprano rather well. Malfi’s Rosina is anything but sweet however, chucking darts about the stage, stamping her pink-shod foot and generally scheming to get her own way – it’s refreshing to see a female character in an opera who fights back and is not a pushover. When she thinks Lindoro/Almaviva has betrayed her (when will people learn that crucial letters always go astray?), she trashes the entire set, including a grand piano and some hefty furniture. Brilliant.
Elder keeps the orchestra sprightly throughout – the strings especially fairly bounce along – and the show-off arias are executed well. My diaphragm hurts just watching Malfi, Meachem and Angelini hurtle through more coloratura in three-and-a-bit hours than most people could manage in a week. The plot is ludicrous, of course, but the production is cleverly directed (by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier in the original, and by Thomas Guthrie in this revival) in order to be hugely appealing. A lighthearted production that nevertheless remains full of heart.
Il Barbiere de Siviglia is at the Royal Opera House until 5 October. For more information and tickets, visit the ROH’s website. Photo by Tristram Kenton.