Opera companies’ process of artistic renewal – or housekeeping – has seen the retirement in recent years of many an older production. These stagings will have been viewed as classic or fusty, according to taste, in the same way as their replacements can be refreshing or disappointing. But I’m not sure there are many productions still around older than Ruth Berghaus’ Staatsoper Berlin Barbiere, new in 1968 and this year celebrating its half century. What’s certainly true is that hardly any can have retained their freshness and wit to the degree it has.

Jennifer Rivera (Rosina) and Colin Lee (Almaviva) © Monika Rittershaus (2010)
Jennifer Rivera (Rosina) and Colin Lee (Almaviva)
© Monika Rittershaus (2010)

The young Achim Freyer’s design is a marvel of ingenious simplicity. The floor of the stage is white with thinly etched black lines. An area in the centre of the stage is enclosed by a square of white curtains, an image of a Seville street gently etched upon them. These curtains are opened and closed to allow access to action, which floats playfully above concrete concerns of verisimilitude. The music lesson’s harpsichord is an ingenious trompe-l'œil box; the storm is enacted with the simplest and most effective means.

Singers occasionally park themselves on the prompt box – shell-shaped, with the prompter’s lower half on view in period frock – and the fourth wall is more than usually porous. There are hints of commedia dell’arte (or broad comedy traditions in general) in Dr Bartolo’s over-emphatic eyebrows or the dancing of the musicians that accompany Almaviva at the start of the action – a band well kitted-out right down to a comedy bass drum. 

Evelin Novak (Berta), Renato Girolami (Bartolo) and Jörg Lucas © Monika Rittershaus (2010)
Evelin Novak (Berta), Renato Girolami (Bartolo) and Jörg Lucas
© Monika Rittershaus (2010)

While the fresh and joyous aspects of Berghaus’ staging are there to see in the design, it’s inevitable that much else will have fallen by the wayside over the years, not least because of the strictures of reviving the show in a repertoire house. Or so it occasionally felt here, for although the cast had been well drilled by the revival director, it was difficult not to wish for a touch of extra sharpness on stage. 

In the pit, though, we were in safe hands with David Cohen, Kapellmeister at the Deutsche Oper but here heading east to guide the Staatskapelle. He conducted the score – its second act shortened to well under an hour – with easy-going geniality and expert musicality, albeit with more bounce than bite. The Staatskapelle’s playing was urbane and often beguiling. 

There were some fine performances from the cast, too. As Rosina, Tara Erraught seemed to be having a ball. She’s a natural and engaging actress, and reeled off her notes with relish in a voice that’s well focused but with a hint of a tangy edge, which suits the character well. Renato Girolami’s singing as Bartolo was as incisive and authoritative as his acting was gloriously over-the-top – just as the role, particularly one felt in this production, should be. It was a performance to relish, and his scenes with Erraught were a highlight. 

Jennifer Rivera (Rosina) © Monika Rittershaus (2010)
Jennifer Rivera (Rosina)
© Monika Rittershaus (2010)

Tassis Christoyannis' Figaro was certainly a likeable fellow, full of swagger, but vocally his was a performance more forceful than refined, the voice’s lack of focus – and its owner’s apparent unwillingness to explore the available dynamic range – taking away some of the character’s charm and guile. There was plenty of charm, though, as well as some lovely sensitive touches, from Dmitry Korchak’s Almaviva. He’s a fine, likeable actor, and it was nice to hear a slightly heftier voice in the role than we’re used to in the role, even if it made for slightly heavy weather in some of the coloratura. Jan Martiník’s genial Dr Basilio was on the light side, perhaps, but he and his fellow ensemble members filled out the rest of the cast well.