In the celebratedly short time in which Rossini wrote The Barber of Seville, he got into a time capsule and took a short trip to twenty-first century London; on his return to 1816 Rome, he wrote the part of Rosina for Lucy Crowe's voice. Or at least, that's what it felt like at ENO last night, as Crowe turned in a performance which outstrips my ability to find superlatives.
No-one pretends that The Barber is a work of great depth: it was written in a hurry (thought to be three weeks), borrowed a fair amount of music from other operas and follows Rossini's formula pretty closely. It is, however, a work of comic genius, and provides a vehicle for star singers. And singing Rossini well – really well – is fiendishly difficult. It's one thing to be able to sing all the notes in the complex decoration – jumps to dizzying heights, death-defying swoops and intricate semi-quaver runs along the way, and to do so while staying perfectly on pitch. But what really distinguished Crowe's performance was to achieve this with perfect control of dynamics and phrasing: you never lost a note which went quiet in the middle of a run, there was always a lilt to her delivery, her timbre was smooth and all this was done with excellent acting of Rosina's soubrette character, shifting back and forth between "butter wouldn't melt" sweetness to devious and steely resolve.
This was a performance to remember. It would have outshone many casts; it outshone this cast by a great deal. As Almaviva, Andrew Kennedy had a attractive and strong voice, lovely in the slower lyrical passages, but I felt he lacked a little of the required flexibility in the faster, more decorated lines. The same was true of Benedict Nelson in the title role: Nelson has good looks and a pleasant baritone voice, but he was often nearly inaudible in the buffo patter lines. This is an opera in which the action should revolve around Figaro, who is pulling all the strings, and I felt that Nelson simply failed to command the stage. The biggest cheer of the curtain calls went to Andrew Shore, who entertained the audience thoroughly with a vivaciously hammed up acting performance as Dr Bartolo. It was delivered very much in a Gilbert-and-Sullivan style with a lot of speech interspersed with the singing; I enjoyed the fun, but I'm not sure the singing style was quite right for Rossini. For me, the best of the supporting singers was David Soar as the hypocritical Don Basilio, who only gets one big aria (his entrance aria, a paean to the power of calumny) and sang it with power, flexibility and comic relish.
Jaime Martin conducted the ENO orchestra in sprightly fashion, with the woodwind section on particularly fine form. For the most part, the music was clear and detailed, moving along nicely and drilling the tunes into your head; however, that clarity got rather lost at the end of Rossini's famous crescendi, where the sound became muddied. The male singers were struggling to make their patter lines heard anyway, and when the orchestra got loud, they were drowned completely.
Jonathan Miller's staging is on its 25th anniversary. It's set in Rossini's period (frock coats, wigs and three-cornered hats abound), with artistic sets and plenty of visual appeal, but unlike his Mikado, which is of similar vintage, it's showing its age. The basic props and the acting may be fine, but the stage feels terribly compressed, constricting movement and making it all a bit static.
Overall, therefore, a competent production and one that entertains in the way that The Barber of Seville always does, even if it doesn't hit the musical heights. But if you're a bel canto fan in any shape or form, go and see this production simply in order to hear Lucy Crowe's Rosina. Crowe's CV doesn't appear to include huge amounts of Rossini, but after this, I hope there's going to be a great deal more.
London ColiseumSt. Martin's Lane
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2N 4ES
Duration: 2 hours 50 minutes
Barber of Seville, Lucy Crowe, Andrew Shore © Scott Rylander/ENO
Barber of Seville, Lucy Crowe © Scott Rylander/ENO