Florence is the last resting place of the remains of Gioachino Rossini, and on the evidence of Wednesday night’s production of Il barbiere di Siviglia at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino his art is very much alive in the city too. An appreciative audience responded warmly to Damiano Michieletto’s production of Rossini’s comic masterpiece, in a revival directed by Andrea Bernard and conducted by Daniele Gatti. The latter’s masterfully sensitive direction of both pacing and dynamics gave the singers the perfect platform on which to deliver performances that were both musically and comedically satisfying.

Nicola Alaimo (Figaro) and Fabio Capitanucci (Don Bartolo)
© Michele Monasta | Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Michieletto opts for a largely abstract staging, with Alessandro Tutini’s carefully cued lighting controlling the ambience. Red was the predominant colour throughout, not just of the lighting, but also the umbrellas, chairs, shoes and the costumes of both Almaviva and Rosina. The conceit during the overture is that a group of characters are taking a rail journey from Florence to Seville, with the bouncy first tune rendered as the rhythmic jolting of the train passengers, and all manner of slow-motion shenanigans choreographed to the later musical excitements. The opera finishes with the journey in reverse, now with the protagonists on board.

The action in between takes place on a largely bare stage, with only a series of redeployed red chairs providing a skeletal approximation of the interiors and exteriors in which the story plays out. At its best, this offers a flexible space for the comedy: the ‘creation’ of Figaro’s shop-front by a couple of spray-paint graffiti artists as he describes it to Almaviva was ingenious and amusing. Not everything works: the addition of dozens of large balloons at the end of both finales felt forced, as if the director didn’t trust Rossini’s madcap music to provide enough of a comedic climax.

Vasilisa Berzhanskaya (Rosina), Nicola Alaimo (Figaro) and Ruzil Gatin (Almaviva)
© Michele Monasta | Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Ruzil Gatin excelled as Count Almaviva (aka Lindoro, the ardent student); although not perhaps possessing the finest grained tone, he had the flexibility to negotiate the tricky passagework Rossini so-often requires of his tenors, and excellent projection when this was called for. He also mined well the humour in his two disguised roles (as drunken soldier and as pious substitute music teacher, the latter clad in full bishop’s rig, complete with purple mitre).

Vasilisa Berzhanskaya was an appealing Rosina, her dark creamy sound reminding us that this role was conceived for a contralto voice, no matter how often it has been taken over by sopranos. Again, her coloratura was impressive, especially in her first aria “Una voce poco fa”, although she was at times swallowed in the louder ensemble passages.

Vasilisa Berzhanskaya (Rosina)
© Michele Monasta | Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In the title role, Nicola Alaimo was amusingly camp, although not always the most disciplined in coordinating his buffo patter with the orchestra in the famous “Largo al factotum”. Nonetheless, he paired well with Gatin in their several duets, and got many of the biggest laughs of the night. More impressive in terms of spitting out syllables at high speed was Fabio Capitanucci, who embraced the incompetent villainy of Don Bartolo with relish and delivered a vocal and dramatic tour de force.

Fabio Capitanucci (Don Bartolo) and Evgeny Stavinsky (Don Basilio)
© Michele Monasta | Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Why Evgeny Stavinskiy as Don Basilio (delightfully described in Rossini’s dramatis personae was “music master, hypocrite”) should have been dressed entirely in green complete with substantial tail was never fully clarified, but the human lizard’s ‘calumny’ aria was a real highlight, with the spreading of false rumours imaginatively staged. As Berta, Carmen Buendía made the most of her sole aria, showing vocal strength and amusing lasciviousness as she stripped down, defying her self-description as ‘a desperate old maid’.

The male chorus did not appear on stage, instead singing their parts variously from the orchestral pit, backstage or at the front of the auditorium. The orchestra under Gatti was alert and tight throughout, with the imaginative playing of the continuo group (fortepiano and cello) in the recitatives deserving special mention.

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