The opening of the Teatro Real’s season in Madrid has been anything but uneventful. However, Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, the ever-pleasing opera chosen to welcome back an expectant audience, had very little to do with it. Just days before the curtain rose, the classical music world woke up to the news of the dismissal of Gérard Mortier, hitherto the Artistic Director of Madrid’s opera house: a tense if not entirely surprising end to a rocky relationship between the Belgian manager and the theatre which began in 2010. Joan Matabosch, who is to succeed him, has demanded artistic independence as a precondition to accept the job. A somewhat telling request.

Rossini’s quintessential opera buffa comes at the perfect time to pour some oil on troubled waters and focus the attention back on the stage. This Barbiere is a joint venture of the Teatro Real and the San Carlos Opera in Lisbon, staged by the Spaniard Emilio Sagi. It premièred in this same house in 2005 and has since travelled to the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris and Los Angeles Opera, where it will return in 2015. This is a production that is, indeed, still very much alive.

Sagi’s starting point is a stereotype with a twist: he presents Seville as a city where people dance instead of move, stomp instead of walk, lure instead of look. Yet black and white dominate both scene and characters, very aptly mirroring the torment of the two lovers who desire to be together in vain. Edgardo Rocha plays Almaviva, the count disguised as a student, then a soldier, then a music teacher. Love was evidently not an easier affair back then, and Rocha should know: he is rapidly becoming a highly sought-after Almaviva. He displays a clear Rossinian voice, hitting every single note in his truly wicked coloraturas. High notes have clearly never been a problem for him, given the ease with which they flow. This is also true of Anna Durlovski, who plays Rosina with wit and vitality. At times, and particularly in her otherwise crystal-clear “Una voce poco fa”, she does take her vocal rollercoasters a step too far – something that might not have entirely pleased a Rossini that made the point of writing out his vocal embellishments to restrain whimsical singers.

Then there is Figaro, the larger-than-life barber in whose shoes Levente Molnár feels at home theatrically and vocally. Energy also abounds in Susana Cordón’s Berta, a minor role that was however one of the most applauded of the evening, and in my opinion, a solid vocal performance with slightly overdone acting, even for a comedy character. This contrasted with a more restrained yet effective rendition of José Fardilha (Bartolo)’s epic patter “A un dottor della mia sorte” or Carlo Lepore (Basilio)’s acutely observed aria “La calunnia è un venticello”, underlined by a white silk cloth that, just like slander, grows silently until it is too late to mitigate the damage. Two arias that are gems within an inspired score packed with freshness and hilarious absurdity. It is almost inconceivable to think that just two years before its première, in northern Europe a seventeen-year old Schubert was writing the incarnation of distress that is Gretchen am Spinnrade.

Distress in Il Barbiere is a very different matter. And sure enough, it does not last. Soon, and as the troubled lovers find hope, a colourful rain washes away dullness and unsolicited suitors, and dyes buildings and clothes. With joy come pink suits, purple dresses and even a red balloon to bid farewell to the now married couple. How much is too much is at every individual’s discretion. This is certainly an unapologetic proposal.

In charge of this feast is Tomáš Hanus, a conductor who has seen his career grow from strength to strength in recent years, with recent debuts with the Opéra National de Paris and Deutsche Oper Berlin. He must be commended for his deep commitment to his craft. It is not hard to imagine him working hours on end to bring the score to life. Hanus is accurate and expressive in his gestures, and with some exceptions he keeps the stage and the pit together. His performance is honest, yet the result somehow falls short of being mindblowing, with an orchestra that performs professionally but does not go as far as sparkling, as this opera so badly requires – the orchestra is, after all, arguably the funniest of all characters in Il Barbiere. The chorus features short but convincing performances.

While it is easy to think that this score is a low-hanging fruit – it is vibrant, genius and full of personality – it is because of this same seeming simplicity that it is so hard to make it shine. Rossini himself was perfectly aware that this work would make him immortal, and history has proved him right: Il Barbiere has never left the stage since it was composed, and ironically, its most famous failure was that of its world première, with the composer himself conducting and a staged boycott undermining his best efforts. Perhaps expecting a life-changing experience from an opera that on the surface does not take itself too seriously is too much to ask. But it does happen.