English National Opera’s most recent revival last season of a Jonathan Miller production, his famous mafia interpretation of Verdi’s Rigoletto, was slightly disappointing, but there was no such let down in the latest wheeling out of his ever popular interpretation Il barbiere di Siviglia, a production now in it's 30th year. Revivals can often feel like they’ve been resuscitated; a quick blast with a defibrillator to help an ageing beast stagger on for a little longer, but under revival director Peter Relton, Miller’s production feels entirely revitalised.

Morgan Pearse (Figaro) © Robbie Jack
Morgan Pearse (Figaro)
© Robbie Jack

We are not in the realm of abstract theatrical concepts here with not a grey box in sight; what we are given instead is a chocolate box of wigs, velvety brocades and a drawing room straight out of a unscreened Julian Fellowes drama. The first scenes take place in the uncluttered alley outside Rosina’s house where Almaviva has arranged a troupe of musicians – beautifully costumed, drawing on traditional harlequin outfits to asisst his serenade. It’s a stage that avoids clutter and allows the set to open up to reveal the drawing room, pushed to the centre as the opera progresses. With Rossini’s comedies though, the size and scale of a production matters less than attentive stage direction and precise comic timing, and Relton’s revival was clearly attuned to this. Choreography was tight, the opening scene with the hired singers and the end of the first act in particular were well managed, and Relton was able to crank up the comedy in scenes like these without pushing every moment over the edge; the contrasts were appreciable. Diction was strong across the board with recourse to the surtitles rarely required, thus giving the comedy an immediate jolt of energy.

Alan Opie (Dr Bartolo) and Eleazar Rodriguez (Count Almaviva) © Robbie Jack
Alan Opie (Dr Bartolo) and Eleazar Rodriguez (Count Almaviva)
© Robbie Jack

It’s difficult to know where to begin with an opera that was so strongly cast. Morgan Pearse is no stranger to the role of Figaro and gave a performance of total confidence. Striding onto the stage, his delivery of “Largo al factotum” displayed a burly, muscular baritone that was more than comfortable with the patter of the aria. A little more of a twinkle in the eye would have lifted his performance, but his sharp delivery and arch looks gave it bite. Eleazar Rodríguez’s Almaviva was initially a cause for concern with an opening “Ecco, ridente in cielo” that seemed strained and uneven. Fortunately the voice seemed to warm up, with an improved showing in his duet with Figaro “All'idea di quel metallo” and when he appeared in his first disguise as a soldier, his performance really took off with a splendid blend of vocal panache and comedy. His drunken antics as the solider and his bizarre, idiosyncratic Don Alonso were a masterclass in acting. His tenor is distinct: light, bright and with a touch of perfume to it in tone, but with real reach in the higher register.

Sarah Tynan (Rosina) © Robbie Jack
Sarah Tynan (Rosina)
© Robbie Jack

Stomping pompously around his little domain, a bewigged Alan Opie, himself a veteran Figaro, made a splendidly puffed out Dr Bartolo, his debut in the role. If his baritone wavered a touch in strength and struggled with the patter, it was more than compensated for by a sense of technical expertise, characterised by his care of phrasing. Curmudgeonly and supercilious, his flair for comic expression was at its height at the (first) home invasion at the end of Act 1, though the memory I will take away was his legs flailing in anguished pain as Don Basilio gripped his hand in excitement at their schemes. Soprano Sarah Tynan’s first outing as Rosina was equally a success, her silky, sunny-toned voice captivating rather than dominating the stage. It’s not the biggest of voices, but she had the top notes and projection to make it a strong character interpretation.

It’s rare to have a disappointing performance from the redoubtable Alastair Miles, surely the go-to bass for Britain’s opera companies, and as Don Basilio, complete with lank hair, orange tights and a vast hat with lethal potential, he gave a strongly voiced interpretation. Yvonne Howard in the minor role of Berta gave a feisty “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie” and Fiorello was energetically sung by Matthew Durkan.

This was conductor Hilary Griffiths’ first stint at ENO and on the strength of the excellent sound he drew from the pit, a return invitation needs to be issued. With the exception of a couple of moments of lethargy in the overture, the ENO orchestra gleamed, particuarly in the woodwind section where the quality was consistently high. This is one of those rare productions firing on all cylinders; a delight to attend.