Bringing an opera to life in a concert performance setting is always challenging. Perhaps even more so when this opera is one of most popular of the repertoire. How to leave an impression with a piece which has been performed again and again, especially when the lavish costumes and colourful sets are stripped down? With this Il barbiere di Siviglia, the Nederlandse Reisopera and its team of soloists showed they definitely were up to the challenge: they treated the public of the Concertgebouw to a feast of exuberant comedy and fine singing.

Marc Milhofer (Almaviva) and Karin Strobos (Rosina) in the National Reisopera's staging © Marco Borggreve | Reisopera (2013)
Marc Milhofer (Almaviva) and Karin Strobos (Rosina) in the National Reisopera's staging
© Marco Borggreve | Reisopera (2013)

The same team, except one soloist, participated in a production directed by Lawrence Dale that toured theatres in the Netherlands last Autumn and, clearly, this concert performance benefited from that past stage experience. The jubilant way singers, conductor and the orchestra (Gelders Orkest) interacted with each other and made music together gave the feel of a joyous reunion. Dragged into the action by the soloists, conductor Antonino Fogliani could not resist joining the fun at times. And the audience responded enthusiastically throughout the evening with loud applause and many moments of laughter.  

The star of the evening was undoubtedly tenor Mark Milhofer as Count Almaviva. Mr Milhofer’s acting was nothing short of compelling. His Count was a bit of a slick character (after all, we know that, in Beaumarchais’ follow-up play, Almaviva turns out to be not such a nice guy), yet irresistible. The score requires the Count to go in disguise twice, first as a drunken soldier and later as a music teacher and, without the help of any costume or accessory, he acted and sang both scenes in a vivid and convincing manner. His singing technique showed a good command of the Rossinian style and although his timbre might be slightly too nasal to be conventionally beautiful, his leggiero tenor, totally at ease in fast fioritura passages, seems naturally made for this music. His impressive rendition of “Cessa di più resistere” – the Count’s final aria which is still so often cut because of its difficulty – was the highlight of the evening and deservedly earned him the loudest and longest cheer from the public.

Veteran Rossinian Bruno Praticò is in a class of its own. At this stage of his career, the Italian buffo bass-baritone has sung Bartolo in about every major opera house in the world, from London to Tokyo and San Francisco to Rome. He is so at one with the character, that he allows himself little touches of acting improvisation that gets the audience bursting with laughter.

Dutch mezzo-soprano Karin Strobos was a fiery Rosina. Ms Strobos has become the darling of the Amsterdam public since she replaced an indisposed Magdalena Kožená  as Octavian in a 2011 production of Der Rosenkavalier conducted by Sir Simon Rattle at the Muziektheater.  I found her attractive mezzo well-suited to the role of the young enamoured girl. The coloratura passages showed off a beautiful lyric sound especially at the top of her range.

In spite of an attractive timbre and a handsome presence, Dutch baritone Peter Bording’s Figaro somewhat paled next to the couple of lovers. It was just too difficult to imagine this barber being much help to such a very resourceful Count. The programme mentioned that when it was premiered, the opera was called Almaviva ossia l’inutile precauzione (Almaviva, or The Useless Precaution) to avoid full-on competition with an opera Paisiello had already written based on Beaumarchais’ play. Admittedly, it is the Count that gets the most exciting music to sing (especially if his final aria isn’t cut) and this title would not have been out of place here.

All supporting roles were well cast. I particularly liked the young bass Nicholas Crawley’s Don Basilio. With his seductive dark sound and agile stage presence, he made a show of the famous calumny aria. Bora Balci sang both the role of Fiorello and that of the police officer. Strangely, the character of Berta in this performance was interpreted by three different sopranos (Zinzi Frohwein, Rosita Fiocco and Ruth Willemse) and the aria “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie" transposed into a terzetto.