Patrons indulging in a little seasonal pre-performance cheer should be advised that, come the Act I finale of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier's new staging of Rossini's Barber of Seville, it's not the auditorium that is moving but the stage.
As the collective heads of the entire company are sent reeling by the appalling complications of the ever-thickening plot, Christian Fenouillat's candy-striped set succumbs to an unscheduled bout of seasickness. It's no more, no less, than we might expect from a production that begins with Count Almaviva serenading the imprisoned Rosina with what looks alarmingly like at least half of the Royal Opera orchestra.
Their hopelessly cack-handed attempts to arrive silently, by stealth, certainly gets things going with a disproportionate sense of the absurd. And that's good news for this Barber.
He, incidentally, arrives through the auditorium, disturbing an entire row of top-price stalls ticket-holders with the familiar words, "Make way for the town's factotum". They do so, of course, if only to ensure that he makes it to the stage in time to despatch the world's most famous baritone aria. The Romanian baritone George Petean - looking somewhat like a Rastafarian take on commedia dell'arte, in dungarees and hairnet - did so with some aplomb, though it has to be said that his presence thereafter was less engaging, less felicitous, than it might have been.
But then again, in the company of a Don Basilio (the excellent Raymond Aceto) whose resemblance to Shylock was fully in keeping with his preference for the chink of gold coins over the gentle twang of the harpsichord, and a real Italian Doctor Bartolo, this Figaro was upstaged all the way to his next close shave.
Bruno Pratico's Bartolo was a marvellously excessive creation, his Cyrano-esque nose leading him from one disastrous suspicion to the next. His expert way with the manically repetitious and explosively onomatopoeic text blissfully underlined his desperation. And it was a smashing idea on the designer's part to underline his obsession of keeping Rosina only for himself that the candy-striped Chinese box of a set was without windows and doors, entrances and exits, until such times as they were absolutely necessary, whereupon they would magically appear.
Now that's what I call feeling boxed in. And she was - the bird in the gilded cage: Rosina. The American mezzo Joyce DiDonato was a complete knockout in the role. She has it all: looks, attitude, voice. When, in her entrance aria, "Una voce poco fa", she sang the words "I do as I'm told, I go where I'm led", there can't have been a single believer in the house. She was feisty and spirited to a fault and, like all the very best Rosinas, so watertight in her technique that she could really play with her music. Rossini's fabulously difficult roulades were tossed off like so much innuendo. She pouted, she teased, she tantalised with the coloratura. She toyed with us from her very first embellishment. And we loved it.
Toby Spence took a little longer to warm his way into Count Almaviva's elegant coloratura. This talented singer has youth and freshness on his side but the passage-work still inhibits his full potential. It will come.
Certainly, there wasn't a single singer on stage who won't have felt coaxed and nursed by the ever-stylish endeavours of the conductor Mark Elder. Raising the orchestra pit to as far as was practical went some way towards sharpening the interaction between voices and instrumentalists, but Elder's piquant way with Rossini's often novel scoring tickled every bar's fancy. It couldn't have been lighter or more acutely nuanced, and, in music as exposed as this, that takes some doing.
This is an opera where almost everyone outstays their welcome. Protracted entrances and exits are the order of the day. For once, too much of a good thing was a good thing.
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