Rolando Villazón, tenor turned director, imagines Il barbiere di Siviglia in the magical world of black and white cinema in the 1930s, where a projectionist is a big fan of the greatest diva: Ceci B. Artoli. During the overture, he and the audience watch the trailer of her last movie, Once Upon a Time in Sevilla, with clips of her past famous roles – a fearless pirate, a distressed nun, Cleopatra. As the opera begins, the characters of the movie walk out of the film and come on stage: Zorro becomes Count Almaviva, removing his cape with a veronica worthy of a toreador, and the mariachi band in the movie accompanies his serenade.

Nicola Alaimo (Figaro), Edgardo Rocha (Almaviva), Cecilia Bartoli (Rosina) and Arturo Brachetti
© Monika Rittershaus

If this trick of making movie characters come alive is not new (Woody Allen sends his regards), it was indeed exquisitely executed during the whole performance, the timing of the entrances and exits of the singers perfectly synchronized with the movie clips. The projectionist, played by variety artist Arturo Brachetti, gets entangled in the story, participating in the events as a silent deus ex machina. The problem is that in this opera there is already a deus ex machina who directs and shapes the story: Figaro, the protagonist. The result was that the projectionist – whom Brachetti made as charming and as likeable as can be – ended up almost stepping on Figaro’s toes as the driver of events, playing a very similar role.

Arturo Brachetti
© Monika Rittershaus

But Nicola Alaimo is not easy to upstage. His Figaro was magnificent: his elegance and style were shining throughout, his coloratura unfaltering. His mellow yet powerful baritone gave authority to the barber, and he was hilarious, with perfect comedic timing, making fun of himself and his own corpulent size in a light, intelligent manner. At his entrance his high notes were a tad sharp, perhaps due to a little tension, but he quickly settled and gave us an explosive “Largo al factotum”, maybe the best I’ve heard.

Edgardo Rocha (Almaviva), Alessandro Corbelli (Don Bartolo) and Cecilia Bartoli (Rosina)
© Monika Rittershaus

The star-studded cast included the one and only Cecilia Bartoli, of course, who showed she can still be convincing in her debut role, in Rome at 19 years old. Her command of Rossini has no rivals, and if the voice is not as fresh as 35 years ago, the technique is impeccable, the timbre voluptuous, the acting engaging and committed. Her duet with Alaimo was superb.

Edgardo Rocha, as Count Almaviva, judiciously avoided any unwritten high notes and concentrated on his strengths: precise coloratura, great style and a definite flare for campy, irresistibly funny acting. His “Cessa di più resistere”, the finale, was exciting and a great success, except for the frankly incredible decision to share the aria with Bartoli, one “stanza” each. And yes, Bartoli can sing anything and do a good job, but this aria one-fifth higher than usual is a bit too high for her.

Arturo Brachetti and Cecilia Bartoli (Rosina)
© Monika Rittershaus

Villazón filled every space and every instant of the performance with jokes, gags, side plots and dozens of characters coming out of different movies, choreographing every note. The result was immensely entertaining, but there is such a thing as too much. At a certain point I stopped trying to follow the side events acted by non-singing characters because it was too distracting from the music. And the music was gorgeous: Gianluca Capuano led Les Musiciens du Prince in an exhilarating reading of the score. The period instruments, with tuning at around 420, made for a detailed, precise performance, and the care the musicians showed in the dynamics, the phrasing and the highlighting is a testament to their deep understanding of Rossini.

They took several liberties, not all completely tasteful. If the addition of castanets and other percussions was forgivable, the film music added to some recitatives by the excellent Andrea del Bianco at fortepiano were a bit too much. Also, the orchestra acting as a soundtrack to the action was perhaps overdone, though still funny.

Nicola Alaima (Figaro) and ensemble
© Monika Rittershaus

Ildebrando d’Arcangelo was Nosferatu, aka Don Basilio, in full Bela Lugosi make-up, with pointy ears and extra-long fingernails that led to endless gags (him unable to hold a tumbler, or scratching on a glass tabletop as the orchestra “played” the screeching). His powerful bass was often somewhat on the edge, but always on the right side of tasteful, and his overall performance was a riot. Don Bartolo was veteran Alessandro Corbelli, whose voice, if perhaps a bit tired, managed “A un dottor della mia sorte” with ease and know-how: he gave us a perfect sillabato. He was the most naturally comical of the bunch, truly enjoyable. Rebeca Olvera, as Berta, gave her best in the concertati with her high, bright soprano, and admirably sang “Il vecchiotto” while tap dancing in top hat and cane (not clear why). 

The evening was a triumph: the snobbish Salzburg crowd was laughing and giggling. Ceci B. Artoli did it again.