Rossini’s Barber in Nuremberg

Rossini’s Barbiere di Siviglia is so familiar that one tends to underrate its qualities both as a musical composition and as theatrical comedy. Its brilliant rhythmic patterns and melodic charms are combined with acute characterisation and amusing interplay. Modern commentators – those whose articles are often republished in theatre programmes – tend to focus on its alleged political dimension, interpreting it not just as a satirical attack on bourgeois values but as subversive, even revolutionary, in a broader sense. I am not sure how true this is of the Rossini version, as opposed to the Beaumarchais original, but I have no objection to productions which adopt this approach, provided that it does not overwhelm the light comedy which is at the heart of the work.

From such a perspective, I was reassured by Josef Ernst Köpplinger’s staging at Nuremberg. Set in the 1950s (imaginative but not too literal designs by Harald Thor), it portrayed a society whose traditional values were on the turn, if not on the point of collapse. But the theme was not carried too far, allowing for much zany humour and chaotic stage activity which did not distract from the musical content. Indeed, one of the strengths of the presentation was the way in which the movements of the protagonists and chorus worked with, rather than against, Rossini’s vivacious score.

In relation to the latter, the evening’s success was due also to the sensitive work of conductor Volker Hiemeyer. He revealed a sure understanding of how to extract the most from Rossini’s music through a fluidity which allows both for forward momentum and for holding back, when appropriate. The cast was made up of a fine bunch of singing-actors. Denis Milo’s Figaro master-minded the exploits for his master, the agility of his baritone matching his physical alertness. Admiration too for the mellifluous tenor of Martin Platz which produced some caressing sounds, particularly when in half-voice; and, unlike some performing Almaviva, also relishing the comic action. Anna Werle was a wily, forthright Rosina, with a nice balance between a rich chest voice and a sweet-toned upper register. Eugenio Leggiadri-Gallani’s bass was a trifle light for Bartolo, but he excelled in the buffo patter. There were good supporting performances from Nikolai Karnolsky as Basilio and Eun-Joo Ham as Berta.