Il barbiere di Siviglia - Royal Opera House, 4 July 2009 (first night)
What a night!
I won't dwell on Joyce DiDonato's painful accident (see here for the gruesome details). But I will again marvel at her incredible willpower and determination to forge on and deliver an amazing performance, worthy of Rosina herself. She sang just as brilliantly as she did at the final rehearsal, with guts and panache. Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier's rigorously choreographed direction placed her every single note in dramatic context - each one of those trills and turns is linked to the action. And she didn't let them down, even in the tempesta scene where she had to swipe all the furniture to the floor in anger - not easy with a crutch in hand.
But it wasn't just Joyce who made the evening so special. It was an incredible performance all round, one of the greatest I can remember at Covent Garden. Perfectly cast, brilliantly sung from top to bottom, played with freshness and precision - and a production which for all its crayon-bright buffoonery digs intelligently right to the heart of the work. And thigh boots too! What more can a girl ask?
Juan Diego Flórez was perfection itself, his Ecco ridente just meltingly delicious, his comic timing superb. And he - deservedly - got the longest ovation I've ever heard for that snake-pit of fiendish coloratura, Cessa di più resistere. Five minutes? I didn't count. So long that Alessandro Corbelli, staying in character as Bartolo, got a few more laughs by checking his watch.
In any other cast, Corbelli and the great Ferruccio Furlanetto would have stolen the show. Corbelli's unbelievably precise patter in Un dottor della mia sorte and his brilliantly-detailed faux-bad singing lesson aria were a masterclass in buffo technique. And his bumbling avuncular characterisation had the great advantage of making the ending far more credible.
It makes me happier to see the name of Ferruccio Furlanetto on a cast list than any number of overpaid divas. His Don Basilio was an awe-inspiring and utterly original creation, bizarre and faintly sinister, sure to give any children lucky enough to attend the show a few bad dreams. His La calunnia - a brilliantly choreographed assault on Bartolo's person and sanity that ended with the lanky Furlanetto's twisted round Corbelli's humpty-dumpty form - was simply one of the greatest performances I've ever seen on stage.
The late sub Pietro Spagnoli was an able and amiable Figaro. The voice is not particularly refined, but it's big and warm, and he held his own amongst his starry colleagues.
His finest moment came early on in the evening. Entering from the back of the auditorium, he made his way down the aisle singing Largo al factotum, pausing here and there to menace the expensively-seated customers with his tools, eliciting a mixture of genuine amusement and nervous smiles. Then - golazo! Was it coincidence, a wager, or is he really chasing that one-star review? - he waved his scissors in the face of Britain's grumpiest opera critic - who is clearly no fan of audience participation. Talk about an f-off glare - I thought I'd die laughing.
Even the smaller parts were brilliantly taken. The prosthetically-enhanced Jennifer Rhys-Davies was hilarious as Berta, though the ending of her aria shouldn't be nearly as funny as the directors make it. She is after all singing about how love has passed her by, one of the few moments where emotional truth pierces through the rigid stylisation the opera owes to its French origins in the drama of Beaumarchais. And Changhan Lim really made a mark as Fiorello - he can sing (a strong, warm baritone), he can act, and, importantly, he didn't look outclassed sharing a stage with Juan Diego Flórez.
Finally, Tony Pappano, managing both the orchestra and the harpsichord continuo (how did he find the time to rehearse with everything he's been doing recently?) practically reinvented the score. Light, witty, fresh, perfectly balanced, and as minutely detailed as the production itself. It's one of the finest things he's ever done at Covent Garden. At last we could hear what Beethoven raved about.
***** MANY more photos on the next page ******