This Paris Opera production of 'The Barber of Seville' from 2002 has some problems, in spite of its superb musical qualities. For starters, it is set in Moorish Spain and all the characters look like they might have wandered in from 'The Abduction from the Seraglio' or 'The Italian Girl in Algiers.' The sets are absolutely stunning in their detail of Moorish architecture. But it is distracting to find that Rosina is in purdah, behind an elaborate system of screens (which fall away, of course, when we are allowed to see and hear her). Bartolo, sung gloriously by Spanish basso Carlos Chausson, looks rather more like Fagin from 'Oliver' than a Spanish doctor. Don Basilio, sung by the tall and stately Icelandic basso Kristinn Sigmundsson, kept reminding me of Sarastro. The costume that Figaro (sung adequately by Czech baritone Dalibor Jenis) wears in the first act almost defies description. He wears a little umbrella hat (for American baseball fans with long memories, it reminds one of Maury Wills) and, anachronistically, a pair of spectacles that look for all the world like Blue Blockers. Joyce DiDonato, as Rosina, is in a Turkish pajama outfit with her face covered by a burqa -- she of course removes it when she sings. Roberto Saccà is in a generic Arab outfit. I'm sorry to spend so much time and space on the setting, but it is as if the set and costume designers deliberately wanted to upstage Rossini and his music, and they succeeded. As for the acting, it would not have been out of place in either a silent movie or a high school play. It is hokey-funny, with large gestures and meaningless stage movement. The chorus is given quasi-choreography for no apparent reason except to keep things moving onstage.
However, when we consider the production from a strictly musical perspective, this is an outstanding performance. All the singers are excellent and the ensemble work is really marvelous. Rising mezzo DiDonato makes a delightful Rosina. She is not quite warmed up for her big number early in Act I, 'Una voce poco fa,' and her coloratura there is a bit approximate, but later she is superb. She has a luscious, rich sound. With the exception of Saccà, a fine Rossini tenor, all the rest of the singers are new to me. Outstanding, for me, is the Bartolo of Chausson; what a gorgeous bass voice, handled expertly and with great attention to the text; the villain you love to hate. Jeannette Fischer makes a wonderful Berta, normally a forgettable character, as does Nicholas Garrett as Fiorello, in spite of his ham acting which still manages to be funny most of the time. Conductor Bruno Campanella keeps things moving, has excellent playing in the pit, and is very in tune with his singers. He must be a joy for the singers to work with.
The bottom line, though, is that the set and stage direction are too distracting (for me, at least) for this to be a solid choice. If you are looking for a fresh look at Rossini's evergreen comic opera, this might be for you. But I wouldn't advise anyone to buy this as their only DVD of the work.
Sound is DD 5.1 and LPCM stereo and is quite good. Picture format 16:9. Subtitles: English, German, French, Italian, Spanish. No extras. TT+152 mins.