Rossini may well have penned The Barber of Seville in just under three weeks, but few comic operas stand the test of time so well. The plot surrounding the wily Figaro’s attempts to help Count Almaviva woo Rosina and hatch her escape from the clutches of her elderly guardian is well worn, as is the venerable Dr Jonathan Miller’s equally venerable ENO production, now receiving its twelfth revival. Yet it’s an opera that works impeccably, especially in direction as light and frothy as Figaro’s shaving foam.

Morgan Pearse (Figaro) © Mike Hoban | ENO
Morgan Pearse (Figaro)
© Mike Hoban | ENO
Miller’s 1987 production is a classic case of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Having somehow managed to avoid any of its previous outings, I admit to finding the whole thing uproariously funny, as did those in the audience happily discovering Barber for the first time. Directors constantly try to reinvent opera, updating plots to make them more “relevant” and accessible to modern audiences. There’s absolutely no point in doing this for Barber. It’s a period piece and I doubt Miller’s production would have looked out of place at the opera's 1816 première in Rome’s Teatro Argentina (a disastrous affair, largely due to the disruptive influence of the supporters of Giovanni Paisiello, whose own version had run since 1782). Thus period costumes and good old farce rule the day, abetted by a witty translation and a slick bit of technical wizardry to effect the transformation from Seville street to fusty interior.

Peter Relton is credited with this revival, but it bears all of Miller’s trademark nuances of acutely observed comic business and, indeed, Miller was duly on hand to receive a loud ovation at the curtain call. A lot of the comedy was well timed, some of it slapstick – Don Basilio’s shovel hat nearly knocking out Dr Bartolo whenever he turned around – some of it deft. The old-fashioned feel even extended to having Rossini’s ebullient overture (originally penned for Aureliano in Palmira and already recycled for Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra) played before a dropped curtain. No dumb show, no video projections, just the music left to stand up for itself. If only the conducting and singing had been better.

Katherine Broderick (Berta), Eleazar Rodriguez (Almaviva) and Kathryn Rudge (Rosina) © Mike Hoban | ENO
Katherine Broderick (Berta), Eleazar Rodriguez (Almaviva) and Kathryn Rudge (Rosina)
© Mike Hoban | ENO

Alas, there’s something wrong when Dr Bartolo steals the entire opera and when Berta sings everyone else off the stage in the Act I finale. Katherine Broderick has a Wagnerian scaled soprano and one could question why she’s cast as Berta when larger roles should be beckoning, but the fact she so dominated the ensemble demonstrates that some of the other voices on show were rather too small scale for a house the size of the Coliseum. Mexican tenor Eleazar Rodriguez laboured gamely with Rossini’s coloratura to little effect as Almaviva and although he acted an amusing drunk, his words were often incomprehensible. Kathryn Rudge was an under-projected Rosina, fluttery vibrato and uneven fioritura affecting “Una voce poco fa”. Both leads suffered from Christopher Allen’s unsympathetic conducting, voices too frequently lost beneath brash, bracing playing. Morgan Pearse was an affable Figaro, his baritone a little too lightly projected, but wrapping his tongue around the barber’s famous patter song. He was another singer without razor-sharp embellishments, but how lovely to see a Figaro genuinely playing the guitar to accompany Almaviva’s serenade.

Andrew Shore (Dr Bartolo) and Barnaby Rea (Don Basilio) © Mike Hoban | ENO
Andrew Shore (Dr Bartolo) and Barnaby Rea (Don Basilio)
© Mike Hoban | ENO

Barnaby Rea’s slimy Don Basilio lacked bass heft, but he acted as a wonderful foil to Andrew Shore’s crusty, crotchety Dr Bartolo. What a gifted comic actor Shore is! Gags are perfectly timed, such as the trapping of his pince-nez in the lid of the harpsichord lid during his aria. The exasperation in his pompous tour de force makes him a strangely sympathetic figure, a not-so-distant cousin to his equally brilliant Beckmesser. “In my day, opera was opera and the sopranos were men,” Bartolo laments. His hankering for operatic standards of a bygone era might not always have been satisfied by this variably sung, but gloriously funny revival.