Gioachino Rossini - Il Barbiere di Siviglia
Enrique Mazzola, Annabel Arden, Danielle de Niese, Alessandro Corbelli, Björn Bürger, Taylor Stayton, Christophoros Stamboglis, Janis Kelly
Opus Arte BD
The work of the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, along with some ambitious projects in other European opera houses, have shown us that there is considerably more to Rossini than Il Barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola, and much else that is worthy of attention, revival and even deeper exploration. That doesn't mean that there aren't qualities still worth exploring in those two famous staples in the composer's catalogue, and in case you've forgotten what the unique characteristics are that keep bringing audiences back to see the Barber of Seville, Annabel Arden's 2016 Glyndebourne's production makes it perfectly clear; this is a work of unique charm.
Il Barbiere di Siviglia is a veritable 'best of' collection of many of Rossini's techniques and tricks of the trade. It's light, dazzling, invigorating and humorous. It has Beaumarchais's playful characters and situations, including many of the same characters that Mozart found so inspiring in The Marriage of Figaro, and Rossini likewise is capable of doing much with them. It's a virtuoso piece that gives opportunities for the musicians to shine as much as the singers, and it's not just all for show. There's a sense of Rossini touching quite brilliantly on the romantic and adventurous spirit of each of his characters.
The Barber of Seville is romantic, adventurous and essentially also youthful in its impetuous and irreverent nature. The great thing about Glyndebourne's 2016 production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia is that is provides a young cast who embody this spirit of youthful effervescence, who at the same time are quite capable of meeting its particular singing demands. Youth - as the recent UK election has shown us - can be a decisive factor in overturning the old, corrupt conservatism and self-interest of the likes of Dr Bartolo and Don Basilio. The world is theirs for the taking, but as we've also seen, having youth on your side isn't always enough to win an election... or indeed to carry off Il Barbiere di Siviglia.
Nor is merely being capable, and there's a sense that the Glyndebourne production seems to have settled for capability and put their trust in the charm of the work to be enough. And for the most part it is enough, but - as singers like Joyce Di Donato and Juan Diego Flórez have demonstrated - it often needs considerable personality as well as exceptional voices to truly do justice to Rossini, to really make it come alive and sparkle. And indeed, it's in the more experienced contingent of this production that Glyndebourne's production more often hits the mark.
Danielle de Niese's Rosina, Björn Bürger's Figaro and Taylor Stayton's Almaviva all have their charms, look wonderful and sing well, but they also come across as a little bland. Rosina is a tricky proposition for a lyric soprano, and only really has fire I think when it's sung by a mezzo-soprano or a contralto, but to her credit de Niese comes over well here. Mainly, it's because she puts a great deal of effort into coming across as bright and sparkling in her performance, and that makes up for any weaknesses in her voice. By way of contrast however, the old-hands of Alessandro Corbelli's Dr Bartolo and Janis Kelly's Berta seem almost effortlessly amusing and more interesting in comparison.
The production design and the direction don't really help, again relying too much on the charm of the work itself to be sufficient. It looks wonderful, the set designs are bold and colourful, the backgrounds semi-abstract with patterns that evoke an idea of Moorish Spain, but there isn't enough done with the characters. To bring Le Nozze di Figaro back into it, you really want the underdogs to overcome the odds stacked against them by the ruling establishment and Mozart makes that an attractive and desirable proposition. Rossini does it too - and there are productions of Il Barbiere di Siviglia that really play up to this - but here the situations just amble along and fall into place without there being much at stake or much doubt about the favourable outcome.
How successful that can be will be partly down to how the characters are played, and it can also be down to whether the production and direction can throw up enough amusing situations, but above all it has to be there in the music. I have no doubt that Enrique Mazzola understands Il Barbiere di Siviglia well and knows how it works - he sums up its qualities eloquently enough in the extra features on this DVD release - but it doesn't come across with sufficient fire from the London Philharmonic in the pit at Glyndebourne. It's lovely and classical sounding, but it's also smooth and unexciting, lacking an edge of fire and personality. Understatement is the order of the day here in Glyndebourne's Il Barbiere di Siviglia, but fortunately the inherent charm of the work is just about enough to carry it off.
The colourful nature of most Glyndebourne productions always comes across well in Opus Arte's High Definition Blu-ray releases, and Il Barbiere di Siviglia is no exception. In terms of image it's near perfection, beautifully lit and coloured, but neither the HD surround mix nor the uncompressed LPCM stereo track are sufficiently dynamic, which is disappointing. The extra features are good, including not only a short 7-minute making of feature, with some good thoughts on the work by Mazzola and Arden, but a full-length commentary track featuring Mazzola and Danielle de Neise. The enclosed booklet also has a short Q&A with Annabel Arden and a synopsis. The BD is all-region compatible, and there are subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.