Those umbilically-joined directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier don’t always hit the spot – their ‘Hansel und Gretel’ is a queasy concoction – but when they do, the results are glorious, and never more so than with their take on Rossini’s ‘Il barbiere di Siviglia’, now back for its second revival.
This was the show in which Joyce DiDonato famously broke her leg mid-aria, and had to finish in a wheelchair. The cast this time round is almost entirely new, with the young Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, who sang a feisty Fiorilla in the Leiser-Caurier ‘Turco in Italia’, as the embattled heroine Rosina.
Conductor Rory Macdonald gives the overture a delightfully business-as-usual feel, bringing out all its latent mischief; flanked by his bewigged musicians, John Osborn as Count Almaviva delivers his opening aria from the top of a tree, while a crescent moon looks on. Then, in an eruption from the back of the stalls, Levente Molnar makes his entry as Figaro: reminiscent of Bryn Terfel in voice and aspect, this Transylvanian baritone radiates explosive energy.
The stylised boxed sets with their soft pastel colours suggest a world which is entirely artificial, but the acting and singing make it pulsatingly real. The business on the balcony is deftly done, with Rosina prevented from responding to her lover by her jealous guardian Bartolo (Bruno Pratico) in a flamboyant fizz of irritation. Then Osborn gets his first big test in a lovely aria shot through with desire and unease. But here - for those of us who saw Juan Diego Florez in this role three years ago - a problem arises, because Osborn’s sound, though small and sweet, doesn’t gleam and soar as Florez’s did; he doesn’t transport us as he should.
While Bartolo’s servants are a picturesque rabble, Rosina’s singing teacher Don Basilio is turned by the young Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov into something extraordinary; his insinuating aria about the malign effects of gossip becomes a spiralling tour de force in vocal and physical comedy, as he and Pratico take us into the land of commedia dell’arte. Indeed, the whole shape of this first act follows a spiral, which Leiser and Caurier inventively exploit: they use the culminating sextet, observed by Almaviva’s massed regiment, to convey a universal bewilderment symbolically expressed by the stage itself, as it rises from the ground and lurches crazily from side to side.
Osborn redeems himself as the opera progresses – having to play a drunk unlocks something interesting in him - but this is Kurzak’s evening, first and last. The aria in which she introduces herself is perfectly paced, with her demure self-description (‘I’m obedient, gentle, and loving’) belied by a sudden access of fury as she starts hurling darts at the wall: so convincing is she that when she makes a feint at the stalls, people in the front row instinctively cower in fright. Her coloratura is smooth and accurate, and her tone can turn from silk to steel in a flash; she’s both a consummate farceuse and a commanding vocal presence. Decca announced this week that it has signed her for a series of Cds, but it’s here on stage that she is most bewitchingly herself. This is a singer who must be seen as well as heard.