ROSSINI The Barber of Seville (Mazzola)
This 2016 Glyndebourne production of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia was the first to be staged there since the elegantly judged 1981 John Cox production, which survives on DVD in a TVS telecast directed by the legendary Dave Heather. The cue for the new production was the bicentenary of the opera’s prima in Rome in 1816; that, and the chance to cast as Rosina Glyndebourne’s current châtelaine, the soprano Danielle de Niese.
Vocally de Niese is a decent Rosina, for all that her acting doesn’t wear well on the small screen. Indeed, most of the acting is broad-brush in Annabel Arden’s relentlessly busy production, not least Björn Bürger’s Figaro. This rakishly tall young German baritone is probably a Don Giovanni to die for but he’s no Figaro. Meanwhile others, such as Alessandro Corbelli, who should have been be shoe-ins for their roles, are left with little to play with or against. Stripped of all doctoral dignity, Corbelli’s Dr Bartolo ends up bearing an alarming resemblance to Manuel in Fawlty Towers.
Despite conceding that the opera’s style is classical in essence, Arden shows scant regard for the comic realism that is key to Beaumarchais’s method, and to Rossini’s. Obsessed by what she mistakenly believes to be the work’s ‘Spanish’ character, she plays the strangest of stylistic games – witness the flying harpsichords in the stretta to the Act 1 finale, which are more Salvador Dalí than Gioachino Rossini.
Joanna Parker’s abstract, predominantly blue-toned Moorish backdrop is equally bizarre: wrong both for the opera’s bespoke settings and for the production’s visibility on the small screen during the darker sequences. (Blue kills most things unless it’s expensively lit.) Bartolo’s bookcases provide a semblance of realism in Act 2. But these are poorly conceived designs in comparison with those William Dudley provided for the 1981 production. And the 1981 cast, led by John Rawnsley and Maria Ewing, is much the better of the two.
Even that, however, yields pride of place to Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s superlative 1971 72 filmed recreation of his celebrated Milan staging. There are those who said that for Ponnelle too much was never enough, but not here. Since he’s his own musically literate director, designer and film-maker, the interplay of music, acting and mise en scène is glorious to look at and endlessly entertaining – without for a moment guying the opera itself, as on occasion Arden (to the audience’s apparent delight) is happy to do. There is genius, too, in the myriad small details with which Ponnelle takes Rossini’s Il barbiere back to its Beaumarchais original.
Though the booklet makes no mention of the fact, Glyndebourne 2016 has an extra aria for Rosina before the Act 2 storm. Written for Joséphine Fodor-Mainvielle for Venice in 1819, and derived in part from Rossini’s Sigismondo (Venice, 1814), it’s as dramatically redundant as it is stylistically at odds with the language of Il barbiere – another misjudgement in a production that has more than its fair share of them.