Humour’s a funny old thing. It’s also infectious. An audience guffawing at jokes when they appear on the surtitles, rather than when delivered by the characters, usually brings out the curmudgeon in me. However, Rossini’s witty score and an expertly delivered slapstick staging turned what could have been a routine revival of Il barbiere di Siviglia into something far beyond expectations. A couple of House debuts – one of them exceptional – also contributed to a wonderful evening.

Serena Malfi (Rosina) © Tristram Kenton
Serena Malfi (Rosina)
© Tristram Kenton

Now on its third revival, Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser’s Barbiere is a burst of candy-striped colour. Beyond a gnarled tree outside Dr Bartolo’s house in the first scene, most of the action takes place in Christian Fenouillat’s boxed set which, aided by creaky hydraulics, tips and tilts to throw the characters into giddy confusion during the Act I finale. The production’s not subtle and nor does it need to be; Barbiere is a crowd-pleaser.

Lucas Meachem’s antics as Figaro makes his entrance through the Stalls were lapped up, as he admired coiffures and clambered past patrons in the front row to reach the stage. Jokes are telegraphed and played out with exaggerated emphasis, especially by the chorus of daft policemen, weeping into their Pavarotti-sized handkerchiefs. Yet there is something innocent and endearing about this staging – it’s good, old-fashioned fun.

Act I finale of <i>Il barbiere di Siviglia</i> © Tristram Kenton
Act I finale of Il barbiere di Siviglia
© Tristram Kenton

Italian-American tenor Michele Angelini made a stylish Royal Opera debut as Almaviva, the Count who is so infatuated with Rosina that he assumes a number of secret identities to woo her. In Act I, he was too eager to please, gilding the lily and adorning his vocal lines with more ornamentation than was strictly necessary. His tenor has easy agility, though isn’t as bright as would be ideal for Rossini and some of his coloratura was heavily aspirated. After the interval, Angelini settled more, delivering a charming ‘Don Alonso’ (the young abbé who’s come to deliver Rosina’s ‘music lesson’). The vocal pyrotechnics of “Cessa di più resistere” perhaps weren’t the wisest idea, as Angelini was audibly tiring by the end of the evening, but credit for taking on this fiendish aria in the first place.

As soon as she launched into Rosina’s “Una voce poco fa”, Serena Malfi made you sit up and listen. She has a lovely, warm mezzo – there’s a darkness to the voice which is not dissimilar to Cecilia Bartoli (but without the hard edge) or Agnes Baltsa. Her attack on the coloratura is fearless, always clean but avoiding ‘machine-gun’ rattle. This was more than a polished House debut; it left you clamouring for a swift return to Bow Street. Malfi’s characterization made her more sympathetic than many Rosinas – less pouting than most – and she had tremendous fun in the singing lesson: was that an arabesque or two from Eboli’s “Veil Song” from Don Carlo tossed in for good measure?

Lucas Meachem (Figaro) and Serena Malfi (Rosina) © Tristram Kenton
Lucas Meachem (Figaro) and Serena Malfi (Rosina)
© Tristram Kenton

Meachem’s Figaro was full of bluff humour, his lumbering barber taking on a hangdog Gérard Depardieu demeanour at moments of exasperation. Vocally, he delivered a very fine “Largo al factotum”, aided by a sensible tempo set by Mark Elder which allowed him to negotiate the patter. He and Malfi had tremendous fun in “Dunque io son”, nowhere more so than when Rosina, prompted by Figaro to write a letter to ‘Lindoro’, immediately produces one from her décolletage: the wily barber instantly recognises he has been outfoxed. Meachem and Malfi played it deliciously.

Maurizio Muraro’s sepulchral bass made the most of “La calunnia” and Janis Kelly’s Berta was a hoot, but it was Alessandro Corbelli’s Dr Bartolo which struck comedy gold. His baritone may be a little raddled round the edges now, but Corbelli constantly draws the eye with beautifully observed reactions and an endless appetite for taking pratfalls. More ham than Parma, but what a roguish scene stealer!

Lucas Meachem (Figaro) and Alessandro Corbelli (Bartolo) © Tristram Kenton
Lucas Meachem (Figaro) and Alessandro Corbelli (Bartolo)
© Tristram Kenton

Elder led a performance that twinkled with Rossinian wit. Rarely pushing his foot too hard on the accelerator – a single blip in the Act I finale aside, where pit and stage became momentarily disconnected – Elder encouraged his woodwinds to provide pert commentary on proceedings. The overture benefited from nuanced string dynamics and the long crescendo was perfectly judged for maximum impact. It was the ear-tickling impact of the sistro – a set of tuned mushroom-shaped bells for the repeated hammering motif of the Act I finale – which will be merrily ringing in my head for days. Bravo Rossini! Bravi tutti!