Happy Ever After? Il barbiere di Siviglia from Den Norske Opera

Rossini – Il barbiere di Siviglia

Il Conte d’Almaviva – Jack Swanson
Bartolo – David Stout
Rosina – Angela Brower
Figaro – Hubert Zapiór
Basilio – Clive Bayley
Berta – Renate Ekerhovd
Fiorello – Magnus Ingemund Kjelstad

Norske Operakoret, Norske Operaorkestret / Tobias Ringborg.
Stage director – Jetske Mijnssen.  Video director – Hans Petter Skolsegg

Den Norske Opera, Operaen, Oslo, Norway.  Saturday, December 12th, 2020.  Streamed via Operavision.

With the dark night of the current sanitary situation showing very few signs of imminent dawn, and with that the recuperation of our freedoms, the need for art is more potent than ever.  And to raise the spirits when things look bleak, who better than Rossini?  For its new production of Il barbiere di Siviglia, the Norske Opera confided the work to Netherlandic director Jetske Mijnssen, a new name to me, though one with a good number of engagements in some of the more interesting boutique theatres.  Performed without a public back in December, the house also assembled a very youthful and promising cast under the direction of Tobias Ringborg.

Photo: © Erik Berg

Mijnssen sets the action with a striking wooden set (Hubert Murauer) that resembles an extension of the beautiful wooden interior of the emblematic Oslo house.  A large wooden structure, containing multiple doors, was carried on a revolving platform that allowed the audience at home to view the action from multiple angles, including a staircase in the middle.  It also showed characters or chorus members appearing when the doors opened, or indeed Hubert Zapiór’s Figaro throwing crumbs of bread on the floor to distract Basilio while he ate breakfast.  There were certainly hints that Jack Swanson’s Almaviva was more of a blatant womanizer than he can often seem – his obvious flirtation with the ladies of the band in the opening scene, suggested that Rosina may be one of many, portending the events of Le nozze di Figaro in fact.  That said, his affection for Rosina was utterly believable and genuine – two people very much into each other.  Although his flirtation with the dancing waitresses in his big closing number suggested trouble ahead.

Photo: © Erik Berg

This is a highly active staging, making much of the cast’s youthful energy.  I must admit to being perplexed by the synchronized dance moves in the Act 1 finale.  It smacked too much of getting the cast to do something, rather than serving any dramatic purpose.  Mijnssen also has Swanson appear dressed only in his underwear for much of Act 1.  It was certainly not unpleasant to look at, but was perhaps taking Figaro’s suggestion to Almaviva of ‘Voi dovreste travestirvi…’ a little too far.  The comedy came from the chemistry between the cast members, who seemed to be having the time of their lives, sharing their joy at being able to be on stage for us.  Swanson’s entry as Don Alonso also caused much mirth, with him yelling at Berta and Bartolo.

Photo: © Erik Berg

The evening kicked off with a spirited account of the overture led by Ringborg.  He organized the pit in an interesting way with strings, all distanced and sitting at individual desks, on the left and winds and brass on the right.  The orchestra played well for him, the quality of the playing precisely of the elevated standard one has come to expect at this address.  Ringborg’s tempi were nicely swift throughout, though I did regret that he didn’t ask the strings to play without vibrato.  The winds were full of character and gurgled along in the textures most agreeably.  Ringborg also accompanied the recitatives from the fortepiano, commenting efficiently on the action.

Photo: © Erik Berg

Minnesotan Swanson is a notable talent.  His tenor is bright in tone and well placed.  It turns the corners with ease and his Italian is decent.  He’s also an engaging actor and absolutely game, given his willingness to along with everything asked of him in the staging, particularly his dispatch of his impeccable coloratura while making the dance moves.  He’s able to shade the tone with delicacy where required.  He dispatched his ‘cessa di più resistere’ with both romantic optimism in the tone and, again, clean negotiation of the endlessly florid lines.  Occasionally, the tone can incline to shallowness, with a certain nasality entering the sound, but Swanson is still very young and I’m looking forward to watching his development over the next few years.

Photo: © Erik Berg

Angela Brower’s Rosina was sung in her customary sunny mezzo, with its bright sopranoish top.  She sang her music agreeably, if perhaps lacking the ultimate degree of individuality.  She dispatched the coloratura efficiently.  Brower’s winning stage presence and smile that light up the stage, as well as her evident joy in performing, made her Rosina live.  That said, I did wish that she had made more of the text, exploiting those double consonants to find more colour in the line.  Zapiór, however, did make much of the text, swaggering around the stage as the barber with wonderful abandon.  His opening number saw him in full command of the range, opening up on top with ease, although with a number of aspirates entering the line in places.  His delightfully virile baritone does sound extremely healthy and his verbal acuity gave a great deal of pleasure.

David Stout’s Bartolo was sung in a generous baritone.  His willingness to compromise the tuning in his love song to Rosina in the lesson scene in the name of comedy, was admirable and genuinely amusing.  Clive Bayley sang ‘la colunnia’ with energy and wit.  Renate Ekerhovd sang Berta’s number in a crystalline soprano, while Magnus Ingemund Kjelstad sang his opening scene with admirable textual clarity and a handsome baritone.

Photo: © Erik Berg

The action was well captured by Hans Petter Skolsegg’s camerawork, although there did seem to be a millisecond of lag between the sound and the image.  This was a Barbiere that was enjoyable due to the chemistry between the cast.  It was more than agreeably sung and vigorously conducted.  Mijnssen has a rather cynical view of the work, leaving us with an ending that was somewhat problematic.  That said, this is a performance that is certainly worth a few hours of your time and a worthy introduction to some very striking young talent.

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