After sitting through three harrowing performances of ENO’s brilliant but blood-splattered Medea, it made a refreshing change for me to attend something at the Coliseum where the entire cast actually makes it to the end of the opera alive and well. Jonathan Miller’s vintage production of The Barber of Seville has clocked up eleven revivals in the past 25 years but still fits the bill perfectly if you’re looking for an enjoyable evening of light-hearted, good old-fashioned comedy. This latest revival boasts the delightful Lucy Crowe as a dazzling Rosina and her performance alone is incentive enough for a repeat viewing, even though some of the other principals are less than ideally suited to their roles.
Miller’s production is unashamedly traditional with well-defined characters and lots of witty details of Personenregie, ably upheld by revival director Peter Relton. I confess I found the set and 18th century costumes (by Tanya McCallin) slightly anaemic for my taste and would have preferred a bit more vibrant colour, but the whole design concept works well in general, even though the somewhat cramped set barely uses a quarter of the vast Coliseum stage.
The singers ENO assembled for this revival have a lot of talent between them, although a couple of the principals seemed miscast – namely Andrew Kennedy’s Count Almaviva and Benedict Nelson’s Figaro. Kennedy has a pleasing, full-bodied timbre but he just isn’t a Rossini tenor and the voice lacks the agility to carry off the coloratura with the requisite grace. The ornamentation and technically challenging runs in “Ecco ridente in cielo” sounded awkward and laboured, although he fared better in the slower canzone “Se il mio nome saper voi bramate”. After this inauspicious start things did improve from Act I scene 2 when he seemed more confident and settled in the role from a dramatic point of view – especially when impersonating the drunken soldier and the singing teacher, which was rather funny.
ENO Harewood Artist Benedict Nelson is a very gifted young singer and I’ve always admired his previous work at the Coliseum, his sensitive musicality and the warmth of his light baritone. But he seemed outside his comfort zone as Figaro, struggling to keep up with the fast-paced patter-song elements and the fiddly coloratura while cast in a role which provided little opportunity for him to properly display the beauty of his instrument or his elegant legato lines. The role of the eponymous barber requires a singer with lots of charisma and a flair for comedy but Nelson isn’t a natural stage animal, bless him, though he certainly does his best to bring the role to life. I’d like to see more of this talented young baritone in future, but preferably in roles which are better suited to his strengths than this one.
Though the first scene of the opera tended to drag and felt rather flat, things improved tenfold once Lucy Crowe joined the party in Act I scene 2 – giving us a feisty Rosina who ticked all the boxes for charm, wit and technical brilliance. Her acting was a delight too and those purists who turn up their noses at soprano Rosinas might reconsider once they’ve heard Crowe giving the Queen of the Night a run for her money with countless beautifully interpolated high notes and impressive ornamentation – all done in the best possible taste, I hasten to add. Her silvery-toned “Una voce poco fa” was an incandescent tour de force, the highlight of the evening for me – perhaps someone in ENO’s education department ought to put a clip of Crowe singing it onto YouTube to demonstrate to the Katherine Jenkins fans what this aria is supposed to sound like?
Though Crowe was the star of the show she had some very tough competition indeed from Andrew Shore’s hilarious and meticulously realised Bartolo; a genius of comic timing who stole every scene he was in and played the grumpy, money-grabbing old doctor to perfection. Vocally he was superb too, carrying off the ridiculously fast section of “A un dottor della mia sorte” with panache and impeccably clear diction. His second act arietta “Quando mi sei vicina” (sung an octave higher than written and involving Shore’s best impersonation of a shockingly bad countertenor) had me in stitches. Bravo!
David Soar is a young singer whose career I’ve been following with interest ever since I heard his impressive Nightwatchman in the WNO Meistersinger a couple of years back. As the straggly-haired Don Basilio he successfully pulled off a highly amusing comedy turn and his rich resonant bass was superb in “La calunnia” –bravely sung at pitch come scritto, including those two cruelly high exposed F sharps above the stave. His Basilio also wins the award for the silliest hat ever seen on the stage of the Coli.
In a rather strange piece of casting, steely-voiced soprano Katherine Broderick (who mainly seems to sing Wagner these days) took the small part of Dr Bartolo’s matronly housekeeper Berta. An ENO Harewood Artist and Cardiff Singer of the World candidate, she did a good job in this cameo role and sang her one short aria “Il vechiotto cerca moglie” with stylish charm. I just wish the conductor had asked her to show some tasteful restraint with the decibels during the Act I finale, as her high notes risked drowning out her smaller-voiced colleagues and spoiling the balance of the ensemble, which I’m sure wasn’t her intention.
The Count’s servant Fiorello doesn’t have much to sing but Alexander Robin Baker made the most of this small part and what I heard of him sounded very good. The ENO Chorus (men only in this one) was also on fine form, although as the “noisy rabble” at the start of Act I it would have been funnier if they’d made a much bigger racket when the Count was telling them to keep quiet.
I was impressed by Jaime Martin’s enthusiastic conducting - he coaxed some very animated playing from the ENO Orchestra, sculpting sensitively-shaped phrases with crisp and precise playing from the strings and woodwind in particular. Occasionally he got carried away and didn’t adapt the volume to the needs of the singers; this particularly affected Benedict Nelson who sometimes couldn’t be heard above the band. But in general the orchestral playing was as spirited and vivacious as one could wish for in a Rossini opera.
Despite my misgivings concerning two of the leading men, this remains a jolly fun evening and is well worth seeing – particularly for the superlative performances of Lucy Crowe and Andrew Shore. The Barber of Seville has seven more performances at the London Coliseum and runs until 17 March.
Photographs © Scott Rylander