200 years after its ill-fated premiere, Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia shows no sign of slowing down. With its catchy tunes and commedia dell’arte characters, it’s easy to see why it remains a firm family favourite. Glyndebourne’s semi-staged production, though, is a thoroughly modern affair – stripped away of its many performing traditions, it is a fresh if not totally convincing take.

Alessandro Corbelli (Dr. Bartolo) © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Alessandro Corbelli (Dr. Bartolo)
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

It’s difficult to say how much of Annabel Arden’s direction was retained in this semi-staging − certain adaptations, involving the very game London Philharmonic Orchestra as well as the statue of Henry Wood, were a creative addition. Otherwise, the semi-staging was reasonably unobtrusive, despite some hyperactive acrobats juggling and shimmying in ostrich feathered headpieces. Costumes placed the action vaguely in the 1950s, with Elvis hair for Almaviva and a dazzling succession of Balenciaga-esque gowns for Rosina.

Vocally, the evening was in good hands, starting from Huw Montague Rendall’s Fiorello, who, in his Proms debut, showed an exciting stage presence and honeyed baritone that demonstrated that he is a Figaro to watch for in the future. Similarly, Janis Kelly made the most of her role as Berta, dispatching her Act II aria with wit and femininity to burn. Kelly’s Berta was a far more prominent character than usual, serving as Rosina’s ally and almost foreshadowing the Rosina-Susanna relationship later on in the Beaumarchais trilogy. Rather more disappointing, though, was Christophoros Stamboglis as Basilio. Though he possesses a rounded bass of great beauty and produced some mightily impressive sounds in the ensembles, he seemed uncomfortable with much of the coloratura and had a tendency to veer dangerously sharp.

Alessandro Corbelli’s Bartolo is by now a known quantity, having been refined by years and years of experience in this repertoire. Though his vocal powers have diminished somewhat over time, his insistence on properly singing rather than blustering his way through the role came as a massive relief. His sense of comic timing remains as potent as ever, resisting the urge to play to the gallery yet eliciting some of the biggest laughs of the evening. Similarly, Taylor Stayton’s understated physical comedy worked brilliantly, played as a lanky, preening aristocrat who can nevertheless show a nasty side towards his subordinates. Vocally, his bright tenor was ideal for the role, neatly dispatching the role’s demanding coloratura though perhaps missing variation in vocal colour.

Danielle de Niese (Rosina) © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Danielle de Niese (Rosina)
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

No such problem was to be found in the diva of the evening. Choosing to sing the role in the original mezzo keys, Danielle de Niese showed off a fine, plummy lower register that showed great promise for more lyric roles to come. Her coloratura remains as meticulous as ever, if rather overenthusiastic in her ornamentation. She was at her best in the lesson scene, displaying a fine legato and scrupulous musical phrasing. Dramatically, de Niese’s Rosina was distinctly unconventional – rather than the typical sympathetic but spunky heroine, this Rosina pouted, simpered, and threw tantrums like a spoiled teenage girl. Not the most likeable heroine, perhaps, but a clear and plausible character choice. The one incongruity came in the addition of an insertion aria, written for soprano Josephine Fodor-Mainvielle in Paris. Like most stand-alone arias of the period, the text is highly stilted and rather too long, and ended up coming across rather like as if Barbarina had decided to interpolate "Popoli di Tessaglia" into the fourth act of Le nozze di Figaro. It was a special shame, given de Niese's effortful rendition of this extended coloratura showpiece, that this came at the expense hearing Stayton in "Cessa di piu resistere".

Best of all, though, was German baritone Björn Bürger in the title role. Never before have I heard a singer so easily negotiate the role’s many coloratura passages, even at some of conductor Enrique Mazzola’s breakneck tempi. Bürger’s nimble baritone is certainly not as resonant as many of his predecessors, but his careful attention to text made for a "Largo al factotum" that, for once, did not sound hackneyed. He also had presence to burn, bounding across the stage with endless energy without falling into the trap of overshadowing his colleagues with hyperactivity.

Danielle de Niese (Rosina), Alessandro Corbelli (Dr. Bartolo), Björn Bürger (Figaro) © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Danielle de Niese (Rosina), Alessandro Corbelli (Dr. Bartolo), Björn Bürger (Figaro)
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The true factotum of the evening was conductor Enrique Mazzola, faced with the unenviable task of keeping together Rossini’s tricky ensembles with his back to the singers. Under Mazzola’s direction, the London Philharmonic Orchestra played with great aplomb – no light soufflé this, but a full-blooded Italian affair complete with whirling woodwinds and a gleefully enthusiastic percussion section that matched the riotous fun had by the audience.