ENO Response 2023/24: The Barber of Seville

11th March 2024 in News

ENO Response is a scheme that offers aspiring writers the opportunity to review opera whilst receiving writing advice and feedback from industry mentors.

Returning to the London Coliseum is Jonathan Miller’s much-loved production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, first staged by English National Opera (ENO) in 1987.

Set in eighteenth century Seville, Rossini’s humorous opera sees dashing Count Almaviva attempt to win the beautiful Rosina from the clutches of her guardian Dr Bartolo, enlisting the help of his barber Figaro and a series of cunning disguises along the way. This comic masterpiece features memorable melodies and unites the theatrical worlds of Italian commedia dell’arte and Whitehall farce to create a production that ‘keeps getting better and better’ (Daily Express).

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
Libretto by Cesare Sterbini, after Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais and a libretto attributed to Giuseppe Petrosellini

Conductor, Roderick Cox
Director, Jonathan Miller
Revival Director, Peter Relton

ENO has had no editorial input in the reviews. All views are their own.

Pau Hernández Santamaria
A wonderful 19th century sitcom

Based on my personal experience, ENO’s The Barber of Seville has healing effects. I’ve got to admit that around an hour before the curtains went up at the Colisseum I was feeling so under the weather that the idea of a three-hour-long opera wasn’t particularly attractive to me. However, I made it to the theatre and it was magical. The production is probably the best we’ve seen from the ENO so far this season along with the opening Peter Grimes, although it was a safe bet as it has been highly successful from its premiere in 1987. Director Peter Relton presents an opera which is funny, exciting and easy to follow, a perfect example of the comic genre that early 19th century audiences loved so much. He does so with an excellent cast and the ENO orchestra conducted by Roderick Cox, who, even if he chose to play the overture at a slower speed that what I would’ve liked, provided the excitement and wittiness that the music needed.

Comic operas such as Mozart’s or Rossini’s are hard to perform, since they expect the singers to add a few other skills to their toolbox, for example delivering fast lines with complicated diction and having a convincing comical approach in every single character. This Barber has the privilege of featuring a cast which is superb from the acting point of view, as evidenced by the large amount of laughing that could be heard at the Coli. Charles Rice becomes a charismatic and hilarious Figaro, able to give a great rendition of the famous aria and to steal the show with his faces and actions. Nevertheless, he sometimes didn’t quite keep in tempo with the orchestra, causing a few ensemble issues between the cast and the musicians that were the only discordant note in the whole evening.

Innocent Masuku possesses the cheekiness and charm that every Count Almaviva needs and clearly became more confident as the opera went on after a hesitant beginning where he was vocally surpassed by the orchestra and other characters. His voice, bright and unique, is one to watch. Anna Devin’s Rosina is well-sang and full of personality, although perhaps restricted in her acting and Simon Bailey (Dr Bartolo) fills the theatre with his warm voice and even shows an impressive castrato register at one point, which was bang in tune. The rest of the supporting characters, Alistair Miles and Lesley Garret, complete a great performance that is likely to make newcomers fall in love with opera and veterans remember why they loved this art.


Rebecca J Hall
Abidingly Sweet

This is the fourth revival of Jonathan Miller’s 1987 production of Rossini’s 1816 opera The Barber of Seville, built around a typical day in the life of Figaro, helping the rich to marry the richer. It’s a pantomime-like opera wonderfully adapted here by English National Opera to be as accessible as possible. Translated into English by Amanda and Anthony Holden, this production retains the wit of the original whilst including British colloquialisms, puns and clever rhyming couplets. But why is it still so popular, I hear you ask?

For one thing, the glorious melodies! During Rossini’s time, the audience’s attention would be focused on gambling, food and conversation rather than the performance; therefore everything important had to be repeated. Thus, although the hubbub at times overpowered the singers, one could sit back and enjoy the music because one eventually caught what was sung. This has the added advantage of making the ‘noisy chorus’ at the opening of Act I appear hilarious, as they are simply not noisy enough. Of the soloists, Innocent Masuku as Count Almaviva has a nimble, harmonious voice and Charles Rice made an expressive Figaro with joyful stage presence, fine vocal agility and tone.

The acting was spot on. Anna Devin’s Rosina was all youthful energy and emotion, going from playful smiles to beguiling slyness in her determination to get her man. When she sang for her guardian, Doctor Bartolo, she practically spat venom and hatred towards him. When, mistakenly feeling rejection, Rosina’s inner turmoil rose in crescendos as she wept, angrily tearing up her letter with comic despair. And after reconciling, the marvelous trio refrain where Figaro bids the Count and Rosina make haste to escape but they kept getting distracted by looking deeply into each other’s eyes, it was funny and sweet all at the same time. Would they ever slowly, slowly, swiftly, quickly slip away?

Strong set design by Tanya McCallin perfectly captured Doctor Bartolo’s bachelor pad. The bleak display cabinets containing medical instruments, bottles and human limbs contrasted with an ornate teal and gold pianoforte purchased specially for his young ward. The costumes were wonderful, too: reminiscent of a fairytale, with harlequin disguises, white army jackets with red cuffs and Count Almaviva’s sumptuous final princely outfit. Figaro’s rival Don Basilio, magnificently played by Alastair Miles, was dressed in an oversized rectangular hat, mucky stockings and a stained coat to reflect his dubious and slanderous nature. Rosina looked every bit the spoiled princess in Act I wearing a pink, flowered dress with an elegant shoulder train and frilly trailing lace sleeves. Her costume change for Act II was less successful, the dress particularly ugly.

The Barber definitely comes across as the 1810s equivalent of a chick-flick modelling how to behave to catch your man. Rossini, I think, would be proud of this production, if bemused by the rather loud, recorded background sounds in amongst live music. This fun production is definitely worth seeing, especially if you’ve never seen an opera before.


Oscar Cunnington
Mephistophelean mania triumphs in the ENO’s rollicking revival of The Barber of Seville

Comedy is found in life’s contrasts. Whether skewering the gap between one’s self-conception and the general perception or revelling in the gulf between characters’ control over events, the delusions that difference inspires are what make us really laugh. Peter Relton’s and the ENO’s revival (also run in 2015 and 2017) of Jonathan Miller’s 1987 The Barber of Seville production understands this implicitly. And creates a hilarious and majestic production that will delight audiences of any experience.

Set in eighteenth-century Seville, the opera follows Count Almaviva’s enlisting of the eponymous barber, Figaro, to help him woo Rosina who is imprisoned by her ill-intentioned guardian Doctor Bartolo. The farcical tone is set from the off with Almaviva and Figaro leading a group of serenading mariachis to jostle beneath Rosina’s imposing window.

The production’s contrasts extend to its structure. There are flamboyant and often hilarious set pieces as Figaro creates chaos to hide Almaviva’s intentions and flummox Bartolo with the ENO chorus supplying the pandemonium as the interrupting Army. But the true highlights come in its quieter moments.

The duets between Almaviva and Figaro or Bartolo and Rosina exquisitely render the tensions in their motives, whether between love and commerce or attraction and romance and add real heft to the hilarity. These include plenty of meta jokes that in the wrong hands can destroy any sense of place but Relton uses them sparingly to great effect with droll comments half addressed to the audience and pastiches of warbling solos.

There are remarkable individual vocal performances. Notably from soprano Anna Devin as Rosina and scene stealer Innocent Masuku as Count Almaviva who simmer with real chemistry. Simon Bailey toes a perfect line between villain and fool as Bartolo and grabs the biggest laughs. And they are given ample support by soprano Lesley Garrett who shines as Berta and Alastair Miles embodying the ultimate self-serving codger of a henchman as Don Basilo.

But acting as the lodestar around which everything else orbits is Charles Rice as Figaro. With a Mephistophelean mania, he weaves the eccentric farce together, interjecting context and comedy where it’s needed and bringing a beguiling physicality to the production’s slower moments. His and Bailey’s set pieces, especially the scene where a shave is used as a distraction, reap real laughs from familiar territory.

Everyone is set up to succeed by a triumphant outing for the orchestra currently fighting cuts and threats to their livelihood. From the overture, it’s clear we’re in good hands with conductor Roderick Cox. He elicits an impish stateliness from Rossini’s score and throughout the production deftly slips between tones and mood to give the farce a sense of grandeur.

There are some imperfections including an onerous Spanish guitar to remind you where we are and an Italian insertion aria which only impoverishes the English translation. The production also never really wrestles with the implicit duplicity of Almaviva’s approach. But these small moments are quickly swept away in a rollicking production showcasing the best of opera’s comedic chops.


Sophie Carlin
ENO’s The Barber of Seville takes a while to warm up, and isn’t without faults – but is still an audience favourite

It makes sense that the English National Opera would programme Jonathan Miller’s production of The Barber of Seville this season. Unlike the experimental ‘opera project’ 7 Deaths of Maria Callas, this 37-year-old, much-loved show is a dead cert for audience approval, a reliable choice. But this particular 2024 iteration unfolds with mixed success.

Gioachino Rossini’s comic opera follows barber/matchmaker/general meddler Figaro, beautiful Rosina, and Count Almaviva, besotted with her. By dressing Almaviva in various entertaining disguises, Figaro tries to help him enter the home of Doctor Bartolo, Rosina’s lecherous, overprotective guardian who wants to marry her for her riches.

Unfortunately, the singers, enunciating (mostly precisely) Cesare Sterbini’s wordy libretto in translation, weren’t always exactly in step with the orchestra, tasked with Rossini’s galloping score. Perhaps Roderick Cox’s cautious conducting could have been more flexible to follow the singers’ expressive changes in tempo, but it’s a hard task to deliver (and musically support) a libretto translated from even, Italianate vowels, to chewy, variable English ones.

Amanda and Anthony Holden’s translation is lively and entertaining, full of great lines (the use of ‘plastered’ to mean ‘drunk’; Bartolo described by Rosina as a ‘fossilised crustacean’; and the cracking simile ‘it goes down well like an emetic’). It’s hilariously self-aware – the repetitive score and excessively ornamented coloratura singing exaggerates Figaro and the lovers’ faffing around before their final escape from Bartolo’s house; and Bartolo’s disdain for comic opera is very amusing.

The comedy took a while to get going. But as it goes on, vocally assured Innocent Masuku as Almaviva adopts his series of disguises with comic aplomb, and farcical antics involving the whole cast ensure the humour eventually starts to come together.

Anna Devin brings to the role of Rosina precise, expressive ornamentation, and a craftiness and humour that really makes us like her. Simon Bailey (Bartolo) and Alastair Miles (Don Basilio) both have an impressively sepulchral lower register, and Lesley Garrett as Yorkshire lass (in Seville?) Berta was greeted affectionately by the audience.

But there was something fusty about this production – perhaps Tanya McCallin’s period set and costumes? The more familiar, predictable music? The lack of bigger, bolder, more obvious (re)creative choices? Regardless, though, the audience’s reaction (craning their necks to see Figaro upon his first entrance; clapping, delighted, whenever given the chance) speaks for itself. This is clearly still a powerful, effective show. Perhaps, unlike with bolder, newer ENO productions, I just need to look harder to see that.


Jack Reilly
Infectious Joy: Miller’s Barber Has Lost None of Its Gleeful Charm

Jonathan Miller’s staging of The Barber of Seville, first seen at ENO in 1987, is an evergreen production of an evergreen opera, one that has lost none of its ability to amuse, charm and divert.

Despite the pallid colour scheme of Miller’s production, featuring designs by Tanya McCallin, the stage radiates a certain warmth; sumptuous eighteenth-century costumes in greys, whites and pastels glow beneath mellow, golden light. The effect is most inviting, and cosy in its way. Miller’s direction is self-aware, but not in a manner to reduce the source material to total farce. Tongue-in-cheek parodies of operatic absurdities (how many repetitions of a single line can one get away with before any actual stage action?) are presented in a fashion entirely in keeping with the world of the characters, without any self-indulgent breaking of the fourth wall. The English translation is extremely effective, with translators Amanda and Anthony Holden remaining true to the spirit rather than the exact letter of the original Italian libretto. The original’s rhymes and metre are maintained, with certain rhyming couplets deliberately ham-fisted – who can deny the clumsy genius of “I am a soldier in the forces, I specialise in horses”?

It is hard to imagine a cast more ideal for Rossini’s comic masterpiece than this one. Charles Rice’s turn as Figaro bristles with charisma, his ability to rattle off recitative with bubbling energy and rapidity perfectly suiting the benevolently scheming barber; his Act I cavatina is superb. Anna Devin sings Rosina (a soprano here rather than Rossini’s original contralto conception) with a giddy self-assurance, with effortless command over her entire range. Simon Bailey brings a ruddy humour to Bartolo, with fellow bass Alastair Miles delectably slimy as Don Basilio. Rounding off the central cast is tenor and ENO Harewood Artist Innocent Masuku as Almaviva; with crystal-clear coloratura and a bright, sunny tone, Masuku is the ideal Rossini tenor. He is a delightful discovery and a veritable asset to the company.

The ENO Orchestra play with great abundance of character and perfect balance. Harpsichordist Andrew Smith realises his continuo accompaniments with imagination and charming word-painting; these are by no means “dry” recitatives. It is nothing less than a shame and a disgrace to ENO’s board of directors that an orchestra composed of such fine and dedicated players has been treated with such apparent contempt in recent weeks. Conductor Roderick Cox doesn’t let the energy flag for a second, although his penchant for extremely lively tempi does trip the singers up a times, who ever so slightly drag in dense, rapid consonants, only to then rush in overcompensation.
These imperfections of ensemble are, however, only slight, and do nothing to mar the spirit of the evening, that of simple, unbounded, infectious joy. Miller’s Barber still possesses an intemperate glee that sweeps the audience along in its stride.


Hannah Bentley
The Barber of Seville Review- huge talent, small impact

After a series of unfortunate events, I find myself furiously weaving through London’s crowded streets on valentine’s day, anxiously checking the time and tutting at slow-walking couples. I burst through the Coliseum doors with two minutes to spare, and quickly forget my troublesome journey as Roderick Cox’s orchestra whisks me away to sunny Seville.

The opening score floods out of the orchestra pit, filling the theatre with jovial notes and the occasional glorious clash of symbols. Cox’s conducting wand is a blur throughout the performance as he draws out the magic from Rossini’s music and meticulously guides the musicians through the score, grinning the whole time. He’s in constant communication with the singers, both taking their cues from one another; the timing is impeccable.

Rossini’s comic opera delves into the world of two young lovers, Rosina and Count Almaviva, desperate to marry each other and defy the tyrannical Dr. Bartolo, aka Dr. Barstardo. Although over 200 years old, the opera explores themes of gender politics and class that still hold relevance today.

Every singer is exceptional. Lesley Garrett, who played Rosina 25 years earlier, injects humour and energy into the role of Berta the housemaid, while this year’s Rosina, Anna Devin, gives a plucky performance. Her sweet powerful soprano voice easily tackles each trill and vibrato with intense control. Devin’s talent is matched by her on stage lover, Innocent Masuku, who woos the audience, as well as Rosina, with his silky treacle-like voice and cheeky charisma.

Tanya McCallin’s intriguing costume design also deserves a mention. Some characters are dressed to resemble pirates, such as Don Basilio, who’s comically large hat continually hits Dr. Bartolo in the face. Fiargo’s costume is reminiscent of Captain Jack Sparrow, evoking a mischievous, masculine sensuality. I’m jealous of his luscious locks, tied together by an olive-green bow, and when he flashes the audience a cocky smile his pearly whites glint under the stage lights, as does his silver hoop earring.

It’s a technically perfect production, except: my attention often wavered, the plot didn’t move me, and the biggest reaction Fiargo’s pranks elicited from me was a strong nasal exhale. Others roared with laughter, slapping their thighs at the punchlines while I felt excluded from the joke.

During the interval, a quick scan of the stalls made it clear to me that I was one of the youngest people there, and I wonder how many of them had seen this opera’s ENO debut in 1987, and what (if any) changes had been made since that first performance?

The ENO’s recent negative press attention can attest to the company’s need for diversifying their audience which this production simply did not do. This is a safe-bet production that brings in older punters, but perhaps the ENO could afford to be more experimental with this 19th century opera and modernise Jonathan Miller’s slapstick humour and physical comedy (something Cal McCrystal did well in Iolanthe).

However, I was content to marvel at the music and stellar singing.


Chloe Sit
The Barber of Seville at the ENO – About time for some changes?

The ENO’s trusted revival, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville returns to the Spring season with a lively night of Italian commedia dell’arte archetypes, impressive vocals, and a classic love story of mischief, mayhem, and triumph of good over evil. Set in 18th-century Seville, the opera buffa features the debonair Court Almaviva’s attempts to win the heart of aristocratic beauty Rosina through song, disguise, and the help of his barber Figaro – all while foiling her guardian Dr Bartolo’s sinister scheme to marry her himself.

Though faithful to its source material and placed in capable hands, the production seems inevitably to show its age. The humour, though well-placed, sometimes falls flat, and the fatal amount of repetition is the final blow that cements the opera in its time. At the time of its creation, The Barber of Seville would’ve been performed in a theatre where audiences would come and go, converse with each other, and miss important plot points – which is why important lines had to be repeated multiple times. In the silence of the Coliseum, however, the thrice-repeated lines seem an anachronism that only emphasizes the need for modern adaptation.

The cast and orchestra, however, were stunning during opening night, and full credit is due for their precise execution of such a demanding score. Rossini’s music sparkles with life, and makes a fine complement to the high-spirited libretto. Luxurious, flowing costumes are well-matched by a clever set that moves to reveal the interior of Rosina’s house, a levelled backdrop allowing the action simultaneously to unfold both in the room and on the street. The group numbers were particularly enjoyable, a rich and superbly integrated blend of agility and emotion. Roderick Cox, too, conducts the energetic score with passion, though the force of the music tends to overpower the singing at times.

Charles Rice delivers an animated enough performance as Figaro, though he fails to stand out with the witty charm and strong presence the title role demands. Innocent Masuku sings Count Almaviva as a bright-toned tenor, coming off more as secondary character than protagonist, but makes up for it with a graceful flair to his romantic arias.

Anna Devin, a soprano Rosina rather than the usual mezzo, steals the show with her incredible trills and animated stage presence, commanding the stage with an elegant determination that makes her perhaps the most memorable part of the show. Similarly striking is Simon Bailey as comically antagonistic Dr Bartolo, clear in both diction and tone, and convincingly ill-disposed. Lesley Garrett, who sang Rosina in this same production 25 years ago, returns to the stage as Berta to deliver the fun, boisterous solo singing that we have come to expect of her.

The Barber of Seville promises a night of light entertainment and classic humour, though perhaps without some much-needed changes and a more balanced cast, the magic of Rossini’s opera is fated to fall into mediocrity amidst other stellar operas of the ENO.