The Florence-Seville Express
Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (Sala Zubin Mehta)
09/08/2022 - & September 10, 12, 14, 15*, 2022
Gioachino Rossini : Il barbiere di Siviglia, ossia L’inutile precauzione
Ruzil Gatin (Il Conte Almaviva), Nicola Alaimo (Figaro), Vasilisa Berzhanskaya (Rosina), Fabio Capitanucci (Don Bartolo), Evgeny Stavinskiy (Basilio), Carmen Buendía (Berta), Eduardo Martínez Flores (Fiorello)
Coro del Maggio Musica Fiorentino, Lorenzo Fratini (Chorus Master), Orchestra del Maggio Musica Fiorentino, Daniele Gatti (Conductor)
Damiano Michieletto/Andrea Bernard (Stage Director, Set Design), Carla Teti (Costumes), Alessandro Tutini (Lighting)
(© Michele Monasta/Maggio Musicale Fiorentino)
Despite a misguided staging and minimal sets, this production was brilliant thanks to some first rate singing. Created as a fantasy, it would have been sweet as a school production or an opera house production aimed at children. The action begins on a railroad track in the Florence train station en route to Seville, in an implausible and very lengthy train ride, and ends in the reverse direction. The protagonists and the extras occupy two compartments, scuffling throughout the locomotive turbulence that is choreographed to the agitated music of the overture. Colourful bright costumes distract the audience’s attention from the non‑existing sets, which are wooden chairs that change configuration throughout the opera. Count Almaviva and Rosina’s costumes, makeup and scenic directions often evoke–at least in spirit–Arlecchino and Colombina, which betrayed a commedia dell’arte interpretation of this comic opera. In a way, the other characters evoked Pantalone, Brighella, Truffaldino and company. A literal commedia dell’arte staging would have been an improvement on this childlike fantasy.
Russian tenor Ruzil Gatin as Almaviva was least at ease in his opening aria, “Ecco, ridente in cielo,” which is comprehensible as he had to sing it on a ladder. Following this uncomfortable predicament, Gatin demonstrated a brilliant voice with total ease in the upper register. Indeed, he is a veteran Rossini singer, singing this composer’s operas from Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, Naples’ San Carlo, Valencia’s Palau de les Arts to the prestigious Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro.
The Figaro, Nicola Alaimo, wore the most extravagant of costumes, with very bright colours and a huge funny wig to match. He was ill at ease in his opening aria, “Largo al Factotum,” and one felt his relief once it was out of the way. He demonstrated a natural comic verve in his antics. What would surely be tiresomely predictable in less proficient hands was amusing and light spirited. In the Act I duet, “All’idea di quel metallo,” the glint in his eyes at the piece of gold given by the Count was more than convincing.
Vasilisa Berzhanskaya, the Russian mezzo, was a revelation. Rarely do we hear such a magnificent voice endowed with a beautiful rich timbre, superlative technique and natural trills. She possesses a wide register with secure high notes and impressive low notes, exempt of the unsavoury chest notes. She excelled in her opening aria, “Una voce poco fa,” perfectly portraying a spirited ingénue.
The most impressive actor among an overall excellent ensemble was Fabio Capitanucci, highly convincing as the buffoonish and pompous Don Bartolo. His oversized clownish costume emphasized his bombastic personality. Most appealing was his natural and relaxed portrayal when it would have been tempting to exaggerate. His aria, “A un dottor della mia sorte,” was exuberant and funny. Another extravagant costume was Don Basilio’s, who was dressed as a green demon; the tail of his jacket resembling a lizard’s tail. This demonic creature would have looked impressive as Les Contes d’Hoffmann’s Docteur Miracle. Given Evgeny Stavinskiy’s Russian antecedents, one expected a Don Basilio in the Chaliapin or Mark Reizen tradition. However, his was a pleasant basso cantante rather than a basso profondo. His interpretation of “La calumnia” was masterful thanks to his rich basso cantante voice. A successful choreography of thin slimy extras dancing as the sparks of a calumny, slowly twisting and quivering and suddenly jumping like a Jack‑in‑the‑Box, was an appropriate accompaniment to the aria.
The tempo of the opening scene of the finale of Act I was excessively slow to emulate the walk and mannerisms of the (fake) drunk Almaviva feigns to be. To grab the public’s attention, the faux, drunk disguised as a soldier, enters the stage through the auditorium. This slow start was effective as it rendered the rest of the scene more frenzied. However, the buffoonery went overboard at the end of the act when the soldiers called in to arrest the drunk intruder are dumbfounded to discover his true aristocratic identity and engage in a not so droll dance with the chairs attached to their backsides. Further puerile extravaganza occurred with huge white balloons invading the stage. The same balloon invasion was repeated at the end of the opera.
The lesson scene in Act II was refreshingly amusing. Disguised in fantastical ecclesiastical garb, Almaviva again enters the stage through the public, distributing saintly images to a few spectators. His excessive obsequiousness felt natural and à propos. The singing lesson was unusually done with a cello instead of the usual piano or harpsichord. In her aria, “Contro un cuor,” Berzhanskaya, despite what looked like a pregnant condition, was truly coquettish.
In the small role of Berta, Carmen Buendía was a vocally deluxe old maid. Unfortunately, the stage director saw it fit to have her strip as she sang her brief aria, “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie,” to express her sexual frustration and despair. This was undignified, and given her apparent youth and handsome face less convincing.
It was refreshing to see that Maggio Musicale Fiorentino did not hesitate to cast Russian singers in three of the opera’s five major roles, in this time in history where artists from this country have been fired merely for their nationality.
As is the case with many stage directors, Damiano Michieletto and Andrea Bernard chose to forget the opera’s Andalusian setting with the plethora of ideas and set designs Seville affords. Likewise, even as a fantasy, disconnecting the action from its setting and epoch leads to incredulity in this particular story. An imprisoned ward, Bartolo’s planned forced wedding to Rosina, and a noble suitor in disguise are not plausible, even in a child’s fantasy without proper context. Fortunately, the singers were strong enough to carry the production despite the unimaginative staging.
Ossama el Naggar