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The Barber of Seville

Rossini
English National Opera
The Coliseum

Barber of Seville Credit: Scott Rylander

With the current opera fashion fixated on updated modern productions, why is Jonathan Miller’s period performance of Barber of Seville repeatedly revived?

It must have something to do with the fact that Miller created a masterpiece in his staging, which yet another brilliant cast brings to life with much humour. This comic opera, written in haste by Rossini at the turn of 1816, has become a firm favourite in the repertoire. Opera Buffa was incredibly popular at the time and armfuls of operas were staged—and now forgotten. Rossini’s Barber of Sevile has stood the test of time and continues to delight audiences with wonderful frivolity and showpiece coloratura. The unusually mixed audience demographic is testament to this.

Amanda and Anthony Holden’s English translation has the audience guffawing—a rare sight in the opera auditoriums. Although a period staging, the humour is anything but antiquated and some ideas never age: ‘it’s really rather funny, but I’m inspired when someone mentions money’.

Figaro (Benedict Nelson), a popular barber and matchmaker, tends to Doctor Bartolo’s (Andrew Shore) household. The Doctor has a beautiful ward Rosina, (Ilona Domnich) who he desperately wishes to marry and guards jealously. Rosina is not a fan of this ridiculous plan, and is easily wooed by the handsome stranger who serenades her through her window day after day, the Count Almaviva (Tyler Clark) in disguise.

In true comic opera style, there then ensues a number of hilarious attempts to trick the doctor and spirit away Rosina, repeatedly foiled before finally resolving in harmony. Beaumarchais' trio of plays was the starting point for Mozart’s Magic of Figaro as well as this tale, and the operas now outfame the theatre works. Rossini’s genius is in playing with the form in which he is writing: he pokes fun at his repeated ritornello sections where the actors tirelessly repeat the same idea, which Miller’s staging only heightens.

Set in the Doctor’s beautiful if dilapidated grandiose house, the cast nip in and out of cuboards, doors and windows to outwit the proprietor. The production is farcical, pushing right to the boundaries without quite overstepping them, despite the comic limps, giant hats and false limbs galore.

‘Fossilised Crustation’ Shore hams up his doctor to hilarious effect, a blustering buffoon constantly in a flap, well offset with Soar’s straighter Don Basilio. Rosina (Domnich) simpers and sulks, delivering sublime lyricism, superb staccati and ease of coloratura. Domich toys with the audience and Almaviva alike, aided by agile eyebrow movement. Almaviva (Clark) is fresh-faced and endearing, if vocally not quite as assured as his beau, but having stepped in last minute would certainly improve with repeat performance. Nelson’s (Figaro) energetic entries punctuate the scenes; this cocky carefree barber tying together a stellar cast.

ENO is certainly making the most of Miller’s productions this year: at Christmas crowds flocked to his Mikado and next to open is his acclaimed La Bohème. These popular operas make a great backbone to ENO’s season, complementing the more unusual works presented.

Reviewer: Louise Lewis