It’s a little too heavy on the buffa, not to mention the sensory overload. That said, there is much to like in the Wiener Staatsoper's new Il barbiere di Siviglia, with a top roster of singers led by Juan Diego Flórez making up for much of the production’s dramaturgic and staging overreach.

Vasilisa Berzhanskaya (Rosina), Juan Diego Flórez (Almaviva) and Étienne Dupuis (Figaro)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

It was an evening of Mark Rothko meets Rococo. Director Herbert Fritsch and Carsten Sander (lighting) opted for brightly lit stripes of gauzy fabric as frames and backdrops for the stage action, while Victoria Behr clad the cast in fanciful garb inspired by the early- to mid-18th century. It doesn’t take long to realise that the staging has little to do with the story beyond allowing its protagonists to appear unexpectedly from behind one or the other panel to take centre-stage Still, all seems well at first, at least in the wide boundaries allowed by Regietheater.

But with the panels changing size and colour at a clip at least as fast as the pace of the last section of Figaro’s “Largo al factotum,” what began as an entertaining light show soon turned into a distraction – and by the end of the near three hours into an annoyance. And that’s a shame, considering the excellent vocal performances by Flórez and the rest of the cast. 

Ildar Abdrazakov (Don Basilio) and Paolo Bordogna (Bartolo)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

As Count Almaviva, who wins the heart of Rosina and frees her from the grasp of Doctor Bartolo, her conniving guardian, Flórez shone from the first note of “Ecco ridente in cielo,” his opening cavatina, to his showcase “Cessa di più resistere” at the very end. Lyrical passages? No problem. Ornate embellishments? Ditto. 

Flórez set a high bar, but the other principals cleared it. Paolo Bordogna was an engagingly buffo Bartolo. As Rosina, Vasilisa Berzhanskaya’s coloratura was impeccable, her middle voice well controlled, her high notes sure-footed. The robust baritone of Étienne Dupuis’ Figaro was the perfect instrument for the wily barber with his finger in every Sevillian pie who helps guide Almaviva and Rosina to a happy ending. And as the scheming Don Basilio, Ildar Abdrazakov’s gloriously effortless and sonorous bass was a treat. Also good, if not exceptional, were Aurora Marthens as Bartolo’s nerve-wracked maid and Stefan Astakhov as Almaviva's servant, Fiorello. And if not champagne, the Staatsopernorchester under Michele Mariotti was at least a sparkling wine, delivering much of the elegance, wit, zest and glitter found in the music. 

Juan Diego Flórez, Aurora Marthens, Paolo Bordogna, Vasilisa Berzhanskaya, Ildar Abdrazakov
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

But not all was well on stage. No less an expert than Verdi wrote that Barbiere “is the finest opera buffa that exists”. Rossini left plenty of room for slapstick in his comic opera, but there was simply too much of it in this performance; too many unnecessary pratfalls, too much mugging. Simply put, it was too laboured an effort to be funny. And so, the heavy handed attempts to provoke laughs from the audience soon met the same fate as the perpetually moving scenic backdrops: at first pleasing, they soon turned annoying, two blemishes on an otherwise enjoyable evening.