The Teatro alla Scala presented a new production of probably the most famous opera buffa in the world, written in just a few weeks by a 24-year old Gioachino Rossini, burnt by one of the most disastrous of fiascos at its 1816 premiere. After that, Il barbiere di Siviglia established itself firmly in the repertoire. It used to be savagely altered – numbers removed, or changed in key, spurious arias added, absurd variations introduced for the prima donna to show off – until the Rossini Renaissance, which brought some rigour to the Master’s performances.

Mattia Olivieri (Figaro)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

And rigour seemed to be the affect informing Riccardo Chailly’s direction; he approached the opera with great respect, and served us an elegant, measured, extremely detailed, at times even introspective performance. Some may have found it slightly on the stern side, but I enjoyed it immensely. It’s an interpretation moving away from the comedy of the absurd, where the characters are like puppets churned into the gears of the Rossini machine – especially in the concertati. Chailly's approach was more affectionate, even in the obsessive finessing of all the details of the score, and it rendered the characters more human, less similar to stock characters of the Commedia dell’arte.

Director Leo Muscato chose an interesting theme for his new production: all the characters seem to have something to do with music, so he sets the story in a theatre, where Don Bartolo is the impresario lusting after the prima donna, Rosina. Don Basilio is the music teacher and Berta the choreographer. Figaro is the prop master, responsible for makeup, wigs, and anything else needed at the “Teatro Siviglia”. The play/opera they are rehearsing is L’inutile precauzione (Barbiere's alternative title) and perhaps Almaviva is the composer.

Svetlina Stoyanova (Rosina) and Mattia Olivieri (Figaro)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

The idea of a theatre within a theatre is not new, and Muscato stretches it pretty thin. The set presents a proscenium with a green curtain, which Figaro, as a deus ex machina, opens and closes by snapping his fingers. Every time the curtain opens, we see a different set. All settings relate to theatrical life: a dressing room, the orchestra seats as seen from backstage, a storage room with large trunks opening to show a barber's shop. A company of male dancers, with tutus, is often rehearsing on stage, sometimes together with Rosina, who is also a ballerina. They interpret the storm through the medium of dance, representing Rosina’s dream. The actors of the play are dressed in 18th-century costumes and huge wigs, coming front of stage to support Bartolo when he sings “Quando mi sei vicina”, an aria “of the last century”. The idea was effective and the visuals enjoyable, although it remained a bit vague.

Nicola Ulivieri (Don Basilio) and Marco Filippo Romano (Bartolo)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Chailly’s support – or, rather, his use – of the singers was masterful. He truly made the most of all performers. I have rarely enjoyed a “Calunnia” this much, even when sung by singers who are considered much bigger stars than bass Nicola Ulivieri who, as Don Basilio, gave a measured and stylish rendition. The Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala buzzed, grumbled and grew into a restrained explosion, just spectacular. The orchestral balance with the singers was always perfect; even during the crazy concertati. Even in the largest opera house in Europe, we could hear every single voice.

And what voices! Maxim Mironov confirmed his natural affinity with the role of Count Almaviva: his light tenor, coloratura and Rossini style were always on point, and he delivered a brilliant “Cessa di più resistere”. His aristocratic countenance didn’t hurt either – he would look like a Count even while taking out the garbage. Svetlina Stoyanova, a young Bulgarian singer, impressed with her warm, round mezzo and perfect coloratura. Her middle and lower registers were well projected and smooth, while the higher notes at times seemed a little strained. She left a very good impression.

Svetlina Stoyanova (Rosina) and Maxim Mironov (Almaviva)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Figaro was Mattia Olivieri, who conquered the audience with his powerful, beautiful baritone, good acting and stage presence. He seemed very at ease in the role of the “puppeteer”, freezing and unfreezing the other singers by snapping his fingers. At times he seemed to rely more on youthful physicality than impeccable technique in his singing, but the result was a very exciting performance. Marco Filippo Romano was perhaps the best Don Bartolo I ever heard. He had everything: phrasing, legato, a buffo baritone suited to the part, and a perfect machine-gun sillabato. His interpretation was varied and intelligent, and he also showed good acting, not hyperbolic, and was honestly funny. Lavinia Bini was a spirited Berta, who delivered a very good “Il vecchiotto”, and whose soprano shone bright and high in the concertati. The cast was completed by Constantino Finucci, quite enjoyable as Fiorello and the officer of the guard.

****1