Glyndebourne’s new Barber

29 May

Glyndebourne’s re-exploration of its core repertory has finally arrived at Il barbiere di Siviglia and high time too.  Rossini’s operas work in this theatre and the ensemble approach is really important in these works.  I saw the performance on 28th May.

Musically, it was a joy from start to finish.  So let’s start with Enrique Mazzola’s conducting.  What I loved was the way in which he made the score come alive: the instruments chatted and responded to each other, they sounded earthy, rasping ‘cellos, cackling bassoons, clear, well strongly articulated strings.  Crescendos grew without the effort that you sometimes get from conductors determined to show you how they should go.  Speeds were fleet, the comedy fizzed.  It was one of those readings where everything sounded “right” even where Mazzola was taking unusual decisions – a very swift Fredda ed imobile, hushed and urgent, for example.  You felt this was an alive, individual response, informed by a real knowledge of the style.  The LPO seemed to be entirely with him and I found myself smiling through most of the evening at the sheer joy of this music.

It helped that there was a really well-balanced cast that, honestly, struck me as being at the same, if not a better level than Gui’s famous 1950s ensemble, with an interpretation that was a bit freer.  In the title role, Björn Bürger struck me as a real find.  An attractive baritone that I’d love to hear in Mozart, Britten or Debussy and the handsome easy presence that you need for the role.  He brought the house down with the sheer ease and aplomb of his opening number.  Taylor Stayton has a light-ish voice and I’d ideally like a bit more colour, but he sings effortlessly and acts with a real spirit and wit.

Christoph Stamboglis has a cavernous bass and a deadpan presence that works marvellously for Basilio – he and Mazzola made La calunnia the tour de force it needs to be.  Alessandro Corbelli was, of course, an ideal Bartolo, stylish, grumpy, dangerous, the voice showing little wear and tear but he still gives a master-class in how to do Italian comedy.  Janis Kelly had a great time as Berta and was allowed a really good dance routine for her aria.

Minor reservations about Danielle de Niese as Rosina.  She’s a soprano in a mezzo role and I wasn’t sure how comfortable she sounded.  She overcame this with her sheer personality and her alert diction and ability to manage the words.  She was given an aria before the storm which was new to me: pleasant enough but not really justifying holding up the action.  What was it?

Annabel Arden’s production has come in for some stick.  The setting – a large space with a semi-circular cyclorama in blues and whites – suggests no concrete location but looks good.  Within that, furniture, balconies, harpsichords (quite a lot of them) are brought on and off and staircases move.  Costumes are vaguely 20th century and a mix of styles, with Basilio identifiably a priest.  It’s a deliberate decision and one which allows the characters freedom to interact – characterisation is clear, they talk to us and to the conductor.  It’s clearly a performance and, given the artificiality of the opera, I don’t object to that.

I enjoyed it and laughed a lot at the intelligent acting and the way in which the characters worked with each other.  What I missed was the element of mayhem in an orderly world that, I think, is part of the piece, particularly the Act I finale. On the other hand, there was an engaging randomness about the entrances and exits that kept you guessing.  I thought it was a deceptively skillful  production.  I’d see it again.

Whether it would work so well with a less skilled cast and a different production is open to the debate, but doesn’t matter.  This was an enormously well-prepared, intelligent, witty production, reminding me of what a strong piece it is and keeping me smiling and chuckling throughout.

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