When in 1816 an opera was announced, based on the same subject of Giovanni Paisiello's Il barbiere di Siviglia, many regarded it as an act of arrogance and outrageous pride against the most revered composer of the time. The tactic of giving it a different title was little use: when on 20th February the stage of the Teatro di Torre Argentina saw the debut of Almaviva, o sia L'inutile precauzione (Almaviva, or The Useless Precaution), the performance was the target of stormy protests by supporters of the old master. Nevertheless, the second performance was a success and the following ones triumphant, a triumph lasting until today, making Gioachino Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia the opera buffa par excellence and one of the most beloved by the public.

Ruzil Gatin (Almaviva), Carlo Lepore (Bartolo) and Vasilisa Berzhanskaya (Rosina)
© Michele Monasta

It is a work that, for the perfection of its theatrical action, is on a par with Le nozze di Figaro, also from the caustic pen of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais who, a few years before the French Revolution, incited audiences in Europe with his irreverent comedies. In Cesare Sterbini's libretto there are no clashes between social classes, but the most likeable character is the commoner Figaro, rather than the noble Count Almaviva, while Don Bartolo and Don Basilio are caricatures.

Barbiere is among the most performed operas in the world and the directors have often indulged themselves with its staging, although rarely altering the plot, at most underlying the funny side of the characters. And that's what Damiano Michieletto did in his production conceived back in 2003 for the Scuola di Formazione del Maggio Fiorentino. Although Michieletto has since directed a completely new production (for Paris in 2014), this academy staging, revived by Silvia Paoli, has the freshness and naivety of the director's early work.

Massimo Cavalletti (Figaro) and Ruzil Gatin (Almaviva)
© Michele Monasta

The characters stand out as masks of the commedia dell'arte in a more than minimalist setting: only a bare backdrop, its colours changing according to Alessandro Tutini's functional lighting, a few other inventively used objects – some red chairs, a blue ladder, yellow cushions, umbrellas, balloons – while Carla Teti's colourful costumes lampoon the Count's varied disguises, Figaro with his hairstyle hinting at foxy ears, Bartolo looking like a well-fed, harmless guard dog, Don Basilio a green reptile with long tail and the two young lovers wearing red. The use of primary colours and lighting is reminiscent of Robert Wilson's style, but only visually, because here the movements are comically quick rather than slow and stylised. The show is framed by railway announcements of a fictitious Florence-Seville train, so we see the passengers of two crowded second-class carriages jolting at the beat of the overture until "the train gains pace, getting faster and faster, then it takes flight and all the passengers are involuntarily flung into the opera, becoming the protagonists of this surreal dimension," writes the director.

Carlo Lepore (Bartolo) and Evgeny Stavinsky (Basilio)
© Michele Monasta

The freshness of the mise-en-scène was reflected in the freshness of Michele Gamba's conducting, directing the singers with masterly accuracy and highlighted the chromatic and dynamic contrasts of Rossini's score, making it sound surprisingly new, as if we were listening to the opera for the first time, with its onomatopoeic sounds, intricate concertati and exquisite melodic lines. 

On stage were three Russian singers: Ruzil Gatin, Vasilisa Berzhanskaya and Evgeny Stavinsky. Gatin was a Count of rare elegance and stage presence, flaunting wonderful legatos and mezze voci but when necessary making his voice soar into bright top notes with clear agility. Cutting Almaviva's final rondo was therefore beyond comprehension. Berzhanskaya was a Rosina of great temperament with a huge vocal range in which she displayed impeccable coloratura. With his profound bass, Stavinsky made Don Basilio even more hilarious in his iconic aria “La calunnia”.

Il barbiere di Siviglia
© Michele Monasta

Carlo Lepore achieved perfection as Don Bartolo; few singers like him know how to assert the comic side of the character without exaggeration, exhibiting remarkable vocal means and textbook articulation. "A un dottor" was performed with such an ease that one wondered why in the past some basses used to ask for its removal. Carmen Buendía was a Berta whose sexual instincts were not dormant, wearing provocative red silk underwear beneath her grey uniform, and Matteo Guerzé was effective as both Fiorello and the Officer. As for the title role, Massimo Cavalletti, despite his relaxed stage presence, disappointed with a certain lack of musicality.

Unfortunately, the show ends in a dissatisfying way: not only is the Count deprived of his rondo, but Michieletto cannot find anything better than bringing back on stage the balloons of Act 1 finale, thus denying us the coup de théâtre that would make the evening unforgettable.