Rossini – The Barber of Seville ****

Edinburgh International Festival

Rossini – The Barber of Seville

Festival Theatre

19:15 (run ends 8 August, not 6)

**** (4 stars)

Rosina, a wealthy young woman, is being kept imprisoned by her elderly guardian who has an eye to her fortune [and her person]. She doesn’t take kindly to her incarceration, and when she is serenaded by an amorous tenor [Count Almaviva, masquerading as an impoverished student, Lindoro whom she met in Madrid before being carted off to Seville and locked up] she is determined to have her own way, no matter what tricks and stratagems she is forced to use. Like the little girl with a curl she is sweetness and light when everyone plays her game, but a vixen when thwarted… but how is she to escape her imprisonment and meet up with the man of her dreams? Enter Figaro, the eponymous barber, who is the ultimate fixer and mixer: he has the entrée to everyone’s house [well, everyone who is anyone, that is] and so can carry notes, make plans, and generally assist things along. There is much merriment and mayhem along the way, with a drunken soldier, a false music master, and an escape plot involving a ladder and a window adding to the chaos, but all turns out well in the end, and Rosina is united with her love – it’s just a pity that, as we find out in The Marriage of Figaro, Almaviva’s actually a womanising bastard who loses interest once he’s conquered…..

The production was very black and white: maybe to underline the simplicity of the actions and motives of most of the people on stage – no half-measures, mostly Good or Bad… It was another Laurent Pelly design – very chic, very French, very black and white, with a musical theme running throughout the production, with an interesting use of music manuscript paper for the set and. At times this was restricting, though well-used: I started off being frustrated by it but gradually came to accept it and ultimately enjoy it props [I loved the almost origami grand piano!]. The black-and-whiteness fitted in with the music theme, but occasionally meant that people’s faces and expressions were lost in the gloom. There was a strong contrast between the very 21st century costumes and body language, and the 18th century theme – did it work? Eventually, I forgot, being wrapped up in the drama unfolding in front of me – oppression isn’t a thing of the past, and man’s continuing attempts to coerce and oppress women never seem to be nearing an end….

The tenor, Michele Angelini, was incredible, with a lovely voice and an amazingly assured command of all the frilly bits that some of us call fioriture. Catherine Trottmann’s feisty, kick-boxing Rosina loved soaring above the stave while Guillaume Andrieux’s Figaro had a good voice and a lot of attitude [and a good head for heights, as he was lowered not once but twice from the flies] but the rapid patter-song bits of his big aria didn’t project so well. Peter Kálmán’s Bartolo was a giant bully – big physically and with a lovely voice: Robert Gleadow’s Basilio was fabulous, making the most of his Calumny aria and using his gangliness to good comic effect. As one who has sung Berta, I was glad to see Julie Pasturaud getting her aria [reputedly Rossini’s favourite] and making the most of it, as did Louis de Lavignère’s Fiorello in the opening scene. There was good comic support from Stéphane Facco’s Ambrogio and the chorus, members of Unikanti, who continued the musical theme of the production even into their appearance as La Forza [the police force] wielding music stands instead of truncheons.

The band – Le Cercle de l’Harmonie, under their conductor Jérémie Rhorer – was great. They all play period instruments, and were in a small corral in front of the stage rather than being buried in the pit, which meant we could really hear their

energy, vitality, rhythmic intensity, and commitment. Their ‘storm’ was brilliant, but unfortunately at times their enthusiasm drowned the singers, especially in their rapid ensembles towards the ends of scenes. That said, they were a delight to hear throughout.

I began the evening thinking ‘oh this is just going to be a silly thing: jolly music and a ‘funny’ tale’ – but despite myself I was sucked into the drama – and above all impressed by Michele Angelini’s fantastic technical control, not simply sketching in all the tiny notes, but clearly articulating and shaping the elaborate vocal lines. Interestingly for a Rossini comedy, it’s not the heroine who holds centre stage at the end, singing her heart out as her troubles evanesce and her future happiness seems assured: this time it’s the tenor who gets to show off – and show off he certainly did!

The audience loved it! There were lots of laughs, appreciative applause for the singers, and a positive storm of approval at the end of each act. Basically it’s an opera about domestic violence and misrepresentation, with everyone skewing the truth as it suits them, hidden under a mask of comedy. What won me over? The tenor – which is NOT like me at all…

Mary Woodward