The sun was shining and the red kites were circling as the audience perambulated past the lake on the Wormsley Estate up to the serene glass features of the auditorium for the opening performance of Garsington Opera's season, a new production of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia. Those of us who picnicked outside bore a resemblance to the evening's Dr Bartolo: just as he sat in his evening finery watching his Rosina being snatched from his hands by those more nimble than his, so did we bow-tied buffers lose our prosciutto and pork pies to those glorious keening red kites, swooping high and low like fine coloratura.

Johannes Kammler (Figaro)
© Clive Barda

Garsington’s Le Comte Ory was one of the highlights of their 2021 season and there was some anticipation as to what director Christopher Luscombe would do with Rossini’s most famous opera buffa. On the whole, he plays it quite straight, letting the opera’s innate humour speak for itself without overt tinkering. The set, courtesy of designer Simon Higlett, is stunning: at first the audience is presented with a Seville street, houses daubed in rich ochres, pinks and blues. Figaro’s shop is to the side with his “cinque parrucche” proudly displayed. Luscombe bumps the action forward to 1929 when the city was booming and, as the exterior of the Bartolo residence rotates, one can see that wealth has poured in: a riot of gold and marble, a paean to luxury and fashion. 

Katie Bray (Rosina)
© Julian Guidera

The production itself doesn’t always soar. The first half feels under-directed and Almaviva’s first scene struggles to raise a smile despite the best efforts of the cast. There’s a gear change when Figaro bicycles onto the stage and things really take off in the second half where the direction and choreography are far tighter. A tendency early on to rely on stock comic tools such as exaggerated running and silly dancing is redeemed by the energy of the principals.

Act 1 finale
© Clive Barda

Where the production’s particular strength lies is in its approach to Bartolo, Rosina and, to a lesser extent, Berta. Rosina, despite her nominal captivity, dominates the household, prowling around the place like a caged panther in salmon pink silk and bleach blonde hair. Lighting up a cigarette, eyes flashing, there’s something of the diva about her, a projected strength which briefly breaks to reveal a touching vulnerability with the words “Mi vergogno”. Bartolo, meanwhile, veers from attempting to maintain phylactic authority to being hopelessly in love, but Luscombe rarely treats him either as simply villain or buffoon, but more as a conflicted and slightly lost older man, fussy and particular. There’s a touching moment when as he bids Rosina farewell, he blows her a kiss in a manner so unfeigned and instinctive that one cannot help but feel a pang of sympathy. Berta’s great moment meanwhile, “Che vecchio sospettoso!”, is an interlude of surprising pathos, a break from a recent trend of treating the aria as another moment of high comedy.

Richard Burkhard (Bartolo)
© Clive Barda

Still, the overarching sensation from Luscombe’s production is warmth and there was some real heat among the performers. Johannes Kammler was a rambunctious Figaro, energetic in both acting and singing. His “Largo al factotum” was delivered with flair and seemed an easy fit for his hearty, even-toned baritone. Andrew Stenson sang Almaviva with a sunny, bright-topped tenor voice which, even if registers didn’t seem entirely smoothly integrated, gave some generous highs. Stenson’s comic delivery, particularly in disguise as Don Alonso which came complete with an exaggerated American accent, was on point, ideally juxtaposed against Richard Burkhard’s patrician Bartolo. Katie Bray entirely inhabited the part of Rosina with pizazz, crackling with energy, but there were one or two occasions when vocal technique seemed to be sacrificed for the sake of effect. Her “Una voce poco fa”, while attractively sung, did not seem entirely easy on her voice. Callum Thorpe’s oaken bass was well suited to a straight-laced Don Basilio and Josephine Goddard sang Berta with a piquant soprano.

After a slightly uncertain, if energetic, overture, the players of The English Concert relaxed and Douglas Boyd led them in a vivacious, buoyant reading of the score, with some particularly fine woodwind playing. The addition of an abridged overture to Sigismondo to commence the start of Act 2 seemed unnecessary, but in no way detracted from a fine evening of Rossinian comedy.