Review: THE BARBER OF SEVILLE, English National Opera, London Coliseum

Jonathan Miller's ever-popular 1987 is back for another run

By: Feb. 13, 2024
Review: THE BARBER OF SEVILLE, English National Opera, London Coliseum
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Review: THE BARBER OF SEVILLE, English National Opera, London Coliseum The Barber of Seville is a reliable old warhorse in the opera repertory and Jonathan Miller’s 1987 production (directed for a third time by Peter Relton) is as battle-hardened as they come. No bad thing that, as there’s a feeling abroad that the English National Opera is in an existential fight after the Arts Council’s demands and its consequent industrial disputes - the tumultuous reception of the ENO’s musicians at the curtain made it clear where the audience’s sympathies lie.

Perhaps such issues require their own ‘Mr Fixit’ and the ENO’s beleaguered managers need look no further than their own stage for a version - although all parties might prefer a broker with fewer of his own motives in play. To be fair, the eponymous hero is more skilled at cutting hair than cutting costs, but he makes his real money (and has his real fun) as a kind of Spanish Tinder, matching men and women for marriage in the heat of 18th century Seville.

Cue some Shakespearean-style high jinx with preposterous disguises, assumed identities and the glamorous heroine saved at the last minute from the man of her nightmares to be delivered into the arms of the man of her dreams. That’s not the only local influence in the production - sung in English, there’s a Gilbert & Sullivan feel running through the shenanigans, explicitly acknowledged with a little in-joke in a resolution that had plenty of ‘topsy-turvy’ to it.   

Review: THE BARBER OF SEVILLE, English National Opera, London Coliseum

On stage, everyone has enormous fun. Simon Bailey has license to ham it up as the lascivious Dr Bartolo, even forgoing his booming bass to essay a little countertenor work in his disparaging of comic opera (the self-consciousness of the show is a pleasing theme). Anna Devin tells us early on that her Rosina is not to be messed with, though she doesn’t quite have the agency one would hope for in 2024 (it was probably quite radical back in 1987). She sings beautifully of course.

Much of the fun concerns the battling between the multiple personas of Count Almaviva, aided by Figaro and his scissors, and the duplicitous Don Basilio, working for the Doctor, until he decides to work for himself. Innocent Masuku’s crystal clear tenor allied to his fine comic timing makes for a dashing hero; Charles Rice wears a permanent grin knowing he’s pulling the strings as the fixer; and Alastair Miles, looking like Weird Al Yankovic in a ludicrous hat, gets exactly what he deserves. 

There’s just time for Lesley Garrett (back after playing Rosina 25 years ago in this very production) to air her native Yorkshire accent in the cameo role of Berta, the much put-upon servant and, wouldn’t you know it, all's well that ends well.

Somehow, the whole doesn’t quite match the sum of the parts. Roderick Cox’s orchestra delivers the score with consummate professionalism, but one feels that its essential Italian quality continually butts up against the translation of the libretto (by Amanda Holden and Anthony Holden). Tom Mannings’ lighting and Tanya McCallin’s costumes do a great job in capturing the 1700s in the Mediterranean sun, but we keep being brought back to 20th century England by the words. The chorus have little to do on a set that gives them a measly allocation of space to indulge in the slapstick repartee which they have been given to squeeze out a few more laughs. The net effect is a certain datedness that clings to the production despite everyone’s best efforts.

That there’s more could be done with Rossini’s caper of an opera is obvious, but many will enjoy this accessible version whether seeing it for the first time or the tenth. And that’s not damning it with faint praise, there’s much to commend putting on popular versions of popular shows, especially if you’re seasoning the programme with the likes of The Handmaid’s Tale at the other end of opera’s feelgood-feelbad spectrum. And the tunes are as jauntily listenable as ever.     

The Barber of Seville is at the London Coliseum until 29 February

Photo image: Clive Barda