Comedy's a funny old thing. Rossini and Wagner certainly had rather different approaches to it. The previous night, Glyndebourne Festival opened with Die Meistersinger, a lengthy comedy on a poignant theme, but one not exactly packed with belly laughs. Yet director David McVicar added plenty of comic touches. Rossini's Barber of Seville, clocking up its 200th anniversary this year, is one of the funniest in the business; a raucous farce to a zinging score. Annabel Arden's new production, although decently sung and visually striking, is seriously under-directed, allowing forced acting to blunt the humour.

Danielle de Niese (Rosina) and Björn Bürger (Figaro) © Bill Cooper
Danielle de Niese (Rosina) and Björn Bürger (Figaro)
© Bill Cooper
Joanna Parker's stylish designs are based on blue and white tile patterns of Moorish Spain. Costumes set the action in the 1950s, Count Almaviva's 'poor student' disguise finding him in long metallic frock coat and sporting an Elvis quiff, while barber and general factotum Figaro is a hip-swinging hippie who's too busy to find time to get his own hair cut. It starts promisingly. Each member of the chorus assembled by Fiorello wields a guitar beneath a rose-strewn balcony. In the Act I finale, instead of a giant anvil descending from the flies, representing the confusion hammering the brains of the cast, harpsichords drop down, adding to a running gag involving tradesmen frantically attempting to deliver one.

Did I miss the memo that juggling is obligatory in opera production today? There was plenty of supernumerary action involving a trio of circus troupe acrobats, which added nothing meaningful. A veiled bride spooks Rosina during a storm that was considerably less spectacular than the ferocious downpour outside. And when Glyndebourne picnics are referenced by Bartolo eating lunch from a hamper in his very own house, it signals a director fresh out of ideas. Arden has little to say about the characters who all too often look left to their own devices, either planted at the front of the stage, eyes fixed on the pit, or mugging to the gallery instead.

Act I finale © Bill Cooper
Act I finale
© Bill Cooper

Björn Bürger was a fine Figaro, delivering a deft “Largo al factotum” – starting out in the pit – with a confident swagger. Taylor Stayton's tenor is well suited to Rossini, ringing brightly as Almaviva in his various disguises, manoeuvring nimbly through the role's demands. Danielle de Niese's hyperactive Rosina rattled off the coloratura impressively, but she inclined to over-ornamentation and her tone was variable. She is granted the very rarely heard insertion aria “Ah, s'è ver, in tal momento”, composed for the soprano Joséphine Fodor- Mainvielle to sing in Paris in 1820. However, it was inelegantly sung, an indulgence, especially when Stayton was denied Almaviva's virtuosic “Cessa di più resistere”. De Niese plays Norina rather than Rosina, bullying Doctor Bartolo, turning 'him' into the victim, thus making him the most sympathetic character on the stage.

Alessandro Corbelli (Doctor Bartolo) © Bill Cooper
Alessandro Corbelli (Doctor Bartolo)
© Bill Cooper

Alessandro Corbelli's Bartolo is still a tour de farce, from the beautifully judged old school of 'less is more'. The veteran baritone can steal the scene with little more than a quizzically-raised eyebrow and still sings the role without resorting to bluster. Christophoros Stamboglis made a nervous Glyndebourne debut as Don Basilio, although “La Calunnia” – a fog of confusion wafting from his robes – displayed a soft, rounded bass. Janis Kelly grabbed Berta's little Act II aria and turned it into something quite wonderful.

Taylor Stayton (Almaviva) © Bill Cooper
Taylor Stayton (Almaviva)
© Bill Cooper

From the overture – volatile and fizzy – this was largely Enrique Mazzola's night. The LPO responded to every nuance; the piccolo shrieked merrily, strings scampered, woodwinds chortled. It sounded as if the players were having a ball and Mazzola, bobbing up and down, was sharing the fun. If only the funny business on stage looked less forced.