A Musical Revelation: Il barbiere di Siviglia at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées

Rossini – Il barbiere di Siviglia

Il Conte d’Almaviva – Michele Angelini
Bartolo – Peter Kálmán
Rosina – Catherine Trottmann
Figaro – Florian Sempey
Basilio – Robert Gleadow
Berta – Annunziata Vestri
Fiorello – Guillaume Andrieux

Chœur Unikanti, Le Cercle de l’Harmonie / Jérémie Rhorer.
Stage director – Laurent Pelly.

Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, France.  Saturday, December 16th, 2017.

Jérémie Rhorer and his Cercle de l’Harmonie enjoy a very close relationship with the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.  Having already started a Mozart cycle at the house, the team now turned their attention to Rossini.  I caught the final performance of a run that was double cast, with one cast featuring established singers and the other with young artists.  The prospect of seeing this team perform Il barbiere di Siviglia alongside Michele Angelini, one of the finest Rossinians around, was an exceptionally tempting proposition.

Photo: © Vincent Pontet

The staging was entrusted to Laurent Pelly.  Pelly is a director who definitely has his own aesthetic and the sepia tones of the set and costumes looked very much like any of his other shows.  In many ways Barbiere is an opera about music – the first act opens with the Count serenading Rosina and the second with Rosina’s music lesson.  With that in mind, the sets (also Pelly) are musical manuscript paper and Rosina, at times, is imprisoned inside bars made up of musical staves.  As a starting point, it’s certainly an interesting one, although I felt that it straitjacketed the production and limited its visual scope.  Even more so, when so much of the personenregie involved characters perambulating around in formation.  At first it was interesting, later it felt that it became monotonous and predictable, distracting from the excellent performances of the principals.  The action felt imposed on the work rather than growing organically from a vision of it.  The cast certainly took on everything asked of them and jumped into the action with aplomb.  Yet at the same time, it felt that in many respects it skirted over the surface of the piece and didn’t, for example, fully bring out the nature of Bartolo’s cruelty to Rosina so that his journey in particular, didn’t always feel completely mapped.  This isn’t to say that we didn’t get fully rounded characters from the principals – we most definitely did get flesh and blood, believable characters and the comic timing of the entire cast was impeccable.  Rather that the framework in which they operated, at least for me, felt that it worked against what they were achieving.  There was one interesting coup de théâtre at the end of the music lesson scene however, with the set folding in half and disappearing.  This made for a striking theatrical effect.

Musically, things were a lot more satisfactory.  Rhorer’s conducting and the playing of his band were revelatory.  The transparent textures from the gut, vibrato-free strings were absolutely beguiling and the way that the woodwinds scintillated within the texture was captivating.  What I enjoy so much in Rhorer’s conducting is his irresistible sense of rhythmic propulsion.  It feels physical, pulling the listener in to the pulse of the music.  He also brought out the warmth and wit of Rossini’s writing with tempi that always felt absolutely right.  The transitions between numbers felt organic, each leading into the next with unstoppable energy and the evening felt paced to perfection, with never a sense of the work dragging.  The band played well on the whole although intonation in the strings was very occasionally raw  and the horns occasionally misbehaved.  What Rhorer and his team did felt absolutely right – so often Rossini becomes victim to weighty tempi, lacking sharpness of attack and rhythmically flaccid.   This wasn’t like that at all.  Frankly, I have waited years to hear Rossini conducted and played as well as this.

Photo: © Vincent Pontet

The cast was also inspired to use ornamentation that truly enhanced the vocal line and made it feel that tonight, much of this music could only be sung by those singing for us.  Michele Angelini presented his familiar Almaviva to the Paris public giving us singing of staggering virtuosity.  The florid writing was absolutely pristine, his breath control seemingly unending, and he gave us several highly musical ascents into the stratosphere.  Yet what distinguished Angelini’s singing is how he made everything he did so much more than just a series of technical tricks.  He found poetry in the writing, making the Count very much the romantic hero.  We rooted for him because of his warmth of personality.  Angelini capped the evening with a show-stopping account of ‘cessa di più resistere’, one that revelled in everything that Rossini threw at him and that made even the most daunting technical challenge seem like a walk in the park.

Florian Sempey’s Figaro was sung with tremendous personality.  The voice is big and warm yet also has the ability to turn the corners with ease.  The top of the voice seemingly defies gravity, sounding absolutely healthy and he added some striking embellishments to his ‘largo al factotum’.  There was a generosity to his stage presence that was absolutely winning.  Everything was sung off the text.

Catherine Trottmann’s Rosina was a spiky, determined young woman in her acting although vocally, that vibrant personality didn’t quite emerge in the music.  The voice isn’t the largest and the role lies slightly low for her, although she did give us some exciting excursions above the stave.  Everything she did was well schooled with some nice embellishments to the line and her strawberry-tinged mezzo certainly gave pleasure.  It’s just that ultimately, her Rosina felt slightly anonymous, partly through the relatively limited palette of tone colours, partly also due to the fact that more could have been done with the text.  Trottmann is still very young, is certainly a vibrant stage presence and most definitely has the raw material.

Photo: © Vincent Pontet

Peter Kálmán brought his big, healthy bass to Bartolo’s music.  The tone has a slightly acidic edge which gives it added personality.  The text was usually clear although words did get lost in the rapid-fire patter of his aria.  Robert Gleadow was a luxuriously-voiced Basilo, the tone warm and rounded with pristine diction.  Annunziata Vestri gave a scene-stealing cameo as Berta, the registers aren’t especially integrated but she made much of little both in her acting and also in her aria.

The chorus, the Chœur Unikanti, is actually a training choir of the Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine designed to allow young people, whose voices have broken, to continue their musical studies alongside their education.  They moved around the stage with great discipline and sang with tight ensemble and warm tone.  This was a fantastic opportunity for them and they rose to the occasion with great confidence.

There was so much that was wonderful about tonight.  Getting to hear conducting and orchestral playing such as this was a real treat, finally getting to hear Rossini done in a way that I have so long wanted to hear.  The singing, particularly from Angelini and Sempey, was excellent and the comic timing of the entire cast was impeccable.  Even though I have reservations about the staging, tonight was a celebration of the life-enhancing nature of Rossini – musically this was definitely a performance that lived.  It was rapturously received by the audience.

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