Based on the eponymous stage play by Beaumarchais, Gioacchino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia premiered in 1816, and has enjoyed tremendous popularity to this day, in no small part because it points to stereotypes that are easy to like or to loathe. The young Count of Almaviva and Rosina have fallen in love, yet two men – Rosina’s guardian, Dr Bartolo, and his scheming cohort, Don Basilio, are keen to thwart their affections, since the good, if decrepid, doctor has an eye on Rosina’s dowry. The barber Figaro is a pivotal figure who – in addition to being barber – is hairdresser, surgeon, botanist, apothecary and general factotum and tries to help the young lovers extricate themselves from a muddle of questionable identities, clandestine messages, money and calamaties.

Figaro’s famous aria “Largo al factotum” is a terrific tongue twister, but not unlike the vocal demands of a dangerously dense libretto that moves at warp-speed throughout. Given that, it would come as no surprise to see any of these singers lift 10-pound weights with their lips alone. Frankly, I hadn’t seen such power coming. Under conductor Enrique Mazzola, the Philharmonia Zurich played the overture at a distinctly laid-back promenade pace, giving it little of the bang that is the usual call to attention. Yet the ensemble soon took on more of an infectious dynamic, and underscored the comedy point for point, oboe and bassoon having starring roles. As the curtain parted and the action began, the powerful rhythms, spiralling crescendos, and unexpected intervals that reflect a “house of confusion” became more and more evident.

In this season’s revival of Cesare Lievi’s production, Russian tenor Maxim Mironov sang a reputable if somewhat over-friendly Count, who might have well shown himself the wanton lover more demonstrably. That might have been hard in the neon-colored and vinyl costumes he had been assigned, outfits that were outrageous enough to stop just short of two-foot curls on each shoe. Italian mezzo Serena Malfi took the role of Rosina, and did so with the allure and touch of vulgarity we often spot in rock stars. Indeed, Marina Luxardo’s costumes for her all featured the same cone-shaped bullet bra that Jean-Paul Gautier made famous for Madonna, and she was dressed otherwise as a cross between a hot pink butterfly and a Goth queen. Yet Malfi’s strong voice was timeless; even though I far preferred the warmth and three-dimensionality of her middle range over the heavy volume of her coloratura, she had vocal powers of projection that shook the house.

As the frustrated Bartolo, Renato Girolami was priceless, both in terms of vocal performance and his hilarious portrayal of the duped elder. His dark, dust-covered velvets and cylindrical cap looked scruffy enough to make you think he’d crawled out from under a rock. His fellow schemer Don Basilio, the fine Michael Hauenstein, had similar garb, an equally strong vocal presence, and a head of coiffed hair that stood up as high from his head as a manicured haystack. One of the evening’s greatest belly laughs came when he took off a made-to-size hat that was fitted just to cover it.

Two lesser roles also deserve special mention. As the ancient, stooped maid Berta, Adriana Gonzales sang a single, but perfectly tempered aria that brought down the house. And Ildo Song, in a less conspicuous role as aide to Bartolo, sang with aplomb and distinction, despite his lethargic character’s constant yawning. Further, the choir, under Janko Kastelic’s direction, gave a rousing background to the attempts for order in the court, and in short, made a very fine configuration.

Only the stage design, by the Swiss star architect Mario Botta, was a distinct disappointment. Sets of huge double-stacked and rotating cubes, spotted all over with tiny lights, made any other stage decoration superfluous. Granted, the giant cubes could slide to centre stage, and once hovered over Bartolo when he was challenged with his conscience. Later in the story, the wee lights turned red to infer “alarm status.” With one side of the cubes being mirrored, it was amusing to see yourself from the audience, and even get a rare and unadulterated peek at the souffleur. But what message did that convey about the action on stage? That we’re all this fickle, all this lusty for gold? 

In sum, fine singing here, the opera’s engine picked up speed as it went along, and yes, the Count got the girl in the end, but the obtuse set decoration in Cesare Lievi’s Zurich production, at least for me, had neither rhyme nor reason.