This sequence of performances is a revival of the interpretation first staged at Covent Garden in 2005, which made a major impression initially for its production values, and has offered some remarkable operatic moments since then, not least Joyce DiDonato’s remarkable presentation of the character of Rosina from a wheelchair. This current incarnation is less impressive: while the sets and costumes are as witty and charming as ever, the performances are for the most part careful and cautious, only becoming incisive in the culminating scenes of the second act.
While this opera is not Rossini’s most original or confronting work, it is deservedly his best known because its structure provides a showcase for all the attributes of his musical style and his flair for ruthless, sometimes cruel, comedy that can then turn to pathos on a sixpence. The six leads all have their solo arias in which they can delineate their identities, and the ensembles cumulate like ever more impressive waves on the shore, especially in the striking finale to act one. The plot of multiple romantic deceptions is complicated enough to avoid predictability, but never so extraneous as to become tiresome; and the music has a distinctive rhythmic originality and melodic sweetness that has made it instantly memorable from the premiere in 1816 onwards.
The basic box set by Christian Fenouillat does a wonderful job in giving a sense of the confinement of Rosina (Daniela Mack) in the home of her lecherous guardian Dr Bartolo (José Fardilha), and the many windows, doors and skylights that open up are a cute symbol of the several impish attempts by Figaro (Vito Priante) and Count Almaviva (Javier Camarena) to free her from the destiny of forced marriage to Bartolo. There is a particularly fine moment at the end of the first act when the set itself joins in the general sense of derangement, a coup worthy of Rossini’s no-holds-barred sense of snowballing comedy.
With such a static framework colour and contrast are needed and cleverly provided by Agostino’s Cavalca’s garish costumes – Rosina’s cerise and lime outfit a particular triumph here – and strongly distinguished lighting sequences from Christophe Forey that shift precisely and starkly like a mood ring. Direction is dynamic especially in the scenes involving the chorus of musicians and police – the former drawn from the orchestra itself, and the latter apparently closely related to the guardians of law and order in The Pirates of Penzance.
The orchestra played crisply enough for Henrik Nánási but without any great sense of engagement or panache. Tempi could have been more daring and dynamic shading more strongly achieved, though things suddenly came to life in the dénouement with some ravishingly quiet passages and powerful tutti. The same has to be said of the singing which, while not routine, never approached the edge of danger and risk that is needed in this repertory. Camarena sang his final long aria with a commitment and command that was not in evidence earlier, and Mack seemed only mildly incommoded by her predicament. Priante delivered his taxing introduction aria with excellent diction but was not the dominant presence you would expect in an opera where the plot puts Figaro in the driving seat. You need to feel that for him, in truth ‘the cheese has fallen on the macaroni.’ (the surtitles were, by the way, outstanding!)
The best singing in fact came from the minor roles. The always-reliable Ferruccio Furlanetto made the most of Don Basilio’s crafty set-piece on how to spread gossip, and it was a pleasure to hear Dr Bartolo’s role really sung rather than barked out petulantly. All credit too to Madeleine Pierard as Berta, a role that is easy to overlook, but whose wan lament for spinsterly neglect injected the first note of real emotion in Act Two.
This was a perfectly acceptable, safe, introduction for someone coming to this opera for the first time, but mostly tame for the aficianado.