Rossini’s opera Il barbiere di Siviglia (1816) is based on the first play (premiered in 1775) of a trilogy by French adventurer and playwright Pierre Beaumarchais featuring the cunning barber Figaro as the central character. Beaumarchais’ thinly veiled critic of the Ancien Régime and the nobility’s privileges in his plays had brought him into trouble with the royal censor, but by the time Rossini wrote his opera, the French Revolution had come and gone, the Bourbons had been restored and the composer – a convinced royalist – had ironed out the most controversial aspects of Beaumarchais’ play from his libretto. For this new production of Barbiere at Dutch National Opera, director Lotte de Beer chose to go back to Beaumarchais’ pre-revolution France for inspiration. The result is lavish and fun, a surprisingly traditional spectacle... although it does come with a twist.

<i>Il barbiere di Siviglia</i> at Dutch National Opera © Marco Borggreve | DNO 2018
Il barbiere di Siviglia at Dutch National Opera
© Marco Borggreve | DNO 2018

From the overture, the sumptuous costumes and sets by Julian Croush invite us into a quirky and colourful mock-18th century France. There is a giant Marie Antoinette sporting an elaborate à la Belle Poule hairdo crowned with a tall ship. A farandole of children dressed up as cupcakes swirls on stage (a reference to the French queen’s infamous, if historically incorrect, “Let them eat cake!”). Count Almaviva sings his cavatina “Ecco, ridente in cielo” from the Montgolfier brothers’ hot air balloon. Doctor Bartolo’s mansion is a giant doll’s house which exquisite details could compete with the ones exhibited at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.

Contrasting with this imagery of the life of luxury, the stage also depicts, discreetly at the beginning and then more and more frequently as the story unveils, the brooding discontent of the poor. It starts with a few street urchins begging on the street, then scavenging scraps of food, then entering the house to steal. In her aria “Il veccchiotto cerca moglie”, lovingly sung by Julietta Aleksanyan, the old maid Berta does not seem to complain so much about the mayhem in Bartolo’s household but more about her condition as a servant. And by the time our main characters celebrate Rosina’s marriage with Almaviva in the finale, we witness the people of Paris marching the streets with pitchforks, pikes and torches towards the Bastille, guided by Delacroix’s Liberty.

Davide Luciano (Figaro) and Nico Weggemans (Ambrogio) © Marco Borggreve | DNO 2018
Davide Luciano (Figaro) and Nico Weggemans (Ambrogio)
© Marco Borggreve | DNO 2018

Conductor Maurizio Benini had the difficult task to coordinate the joyous whirlwind happening on stage with the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra in the pit and he did so well, although I expect the performance should gain a tad more detailed finesse as the run further develops. The exuberant production was furthermore carried by a strong cast that rose to the challenge of the intricate and fast-paced stage direction with flying colours. There was a deep, resonant Basilio from Marko Mimica. Misha Kiria’s dark but flexible baritone made for an ideal Dr Bartolo that let perspire an unusually threatening character beyond the usual ridicule.

René Barbera (Almaviva) and Nino Machaidze (Rosina) © Marco Borggreve | DNO 2018
René Barbera (Almaviva) and Nino Machaidze (Rosina)
© Marco Borggreve | DNO 2018

With his sunlit tenor, superb coloratura and his easy top, René Barbera made a memorable Almaviva and my only regret of the evening was that we did not get to hear his final aria “Cessa di piu resistere” which was cut according to a now outdated tradition and presumably, in this staging, because it would have brought the capture of the Bastille to a standstill. It is easy to understand why Davide Luciano’s Figaro has already conquered the public in Berlin, Paris and Pesaro. His baritone isn’t perhaps the most multicoloured, but the timbre is most pleasant and the voice extremely well projected. His Figaro boasted a mischievously elegant way with the words and an agile stage presence. I couldn’t have said whether it was him, or indeed guitarist Paul van Utrecht from the pit, who accompanied the Count’s serenade with the guitar.

Nino Machaidze (Rosina) © Marco Borggreve | DNO 2018
Nino Machaidze (Rosina)
© Marco Borggreve | DNO 2018

Nino Machaidze’s characteristically-timbred soprano has darkened since I last heard her live. The middle register has gained a richness that suits Rosina well and she rides the coloratura in a baffling manner. She was a particularly fiery Rosina almost until the end, when the varnish of comedy cracks and the a darker side is reveiled. Ms De Beer puts Rosina's character at the centre of her storytelling. During the overture, we see how a young Rosina is groomed to become Bartolo’s wife. Throughout the opera, her disgust for her tutor is evident and the rainstorm music of the second act discloses something more violent than just thunder. Finally, when she realises that the young student Lindoro with whom she fell in love is in reality a self-entitled, balding count, we already witness a glimpse of the melancholic sadness of Le nozze’ s Countess Almaviva.

****1