Though English National Opera's 2008-09 season is more notable for its large number of new productions than the revivals, a few old favourites are coming back, and this month it's the turn of Jonathan Miller's now-classic staging of The Barber of Seville.
It remains a solid production that brings the claustrophobia of Rosina's existence and the perhaps cruel gulling of Bartolo to the fore, and Miller explores the tensions of the Bartolo-Rosina relationship and the cynicism of Figaro with his usual insight. Much is made of the barber's swindling habits as a general factotum, and he comes across as the ringmaster even more than is usually the case. Rosina's window is strongly barred, intensifying the image of her room as a prison cell, and there are some really effective theatrical moments, such as the blowing open of the window during the tempesta, as well as an effective handling of the larger ensembles.
Yet the production remains rather dark and shadowy, and somewhat lacking in laughs. The slapstick humour surrounding Dr Bartolo finds Miller at his witty best, but elsewhere he resorts to making the singers perform silly jerky movements in time to the music, reminiscent of his approach to The Mikado; I don't think that in itself is enough to sustain a three-hour comic opera.
And Rossini at his most musically sparkling is simply not matched with fizzing visuals here either. Tanya McCallin's designs are elegant and handsome, evoking Bartolo's residence beautifully, but aside from the sinister presence of various limbs, arms and organs in Bartolo's cupboards (his doctor's paraphernalia), they are just too creamy and bland to make enough of an impact.
Musically, the performance was dominated by the Bartolo of Andrew Shore, who was simply outstanding in every way. Truly, this was a masterclass of a role assumption: the diction was crystal clear, the projection strong, the delivery nuanced, and most importantly of all, Shore trod a careful line between being true to the character's buffo status and giving him a slight vulnerability. This pompous fool of a man, after all, ends up with absolutely nothing.
Also refreshingly poised was Anna Grevelius, as beautiful a Rosina as one could hope for. Apart from Shore, she was the only member of the cast capable of performing the music with a complete assurance of the bel canto style – both fearless in the fioriture and smooth in the lyric passages. John Tessier's Count Almaviva just stopped short of the mark in that respect for my taste, not creating the long legato lines needed in this music. However, the quality of his voice is ideal for Rossini – light and flexible – and his panache when taking on various disguises was highly engaging.
Garry Magee plays Figaro as to the manor born. There is almost a magician quality to his interpretation, whereby he glides about the stage and communicates such proficiency that one can truly believe he's capable of doing everything he promises. The singing, too, is confident, with generous performances of his signature aria and the duet with Rosina; it's a shame that tension above the stave causes very slight problems in the bravura moments, but Magee's performance is full of joie de vivre.
Brindley Sherratt's gloriously repulsive Don Basilio is an eye-catching creation, while Julian Hubbard's Fiorello provided some of the finest singing of the evening. Jennifer Rhys-Davies' Berta was also loads of fun, without quite providing the vocal brilliance of some previous interpreters of the role.
One of the evening's greatest pleasures was Rory Mcdonald's conducting. With the exception of a couple of overdone stretta passages, the tempos were well judged and the balance between stage and pit mostly good. What particularly stood out was the accuracy of the articulation, which is so important in Rossini; the classical precision and wit were always well served. The performance was a testament to how far Macdonald has come since leaving Covent Garden's Young Artists Programme.
If the first act at 90 minutes in length begins to drag, the second maintains the interest much more effectively. It's not one of Miller's most interesting productions, but this Barber provides a perfectly decent night of entertainment.
Review our interview with Andrew Shore.
Photographs: Alastair Muir.