This is a "Barbiere" intended to be a 'laff-fest', staged, directed, and conducted for maximum slapstick commedia. If you want your "Barber of Seville" to retain any of the social indignation of Beaumarchais's revolutionary drama, you'd better look elsewhere. That insidious anti-aristocratic message needs to be present in Mozart's "Figaro" but it has always seemed extraneous to Rossini's. I truly doubt that Rossini gave a fig for Beaumarchais's edgy politics. I suspect old Gioachino would have been happily flabbergasted at this broad musical and uproarious dramatic interpretation of his most popular opera. In too many productions, Il Barbiere has become a stodgy 'sacred cow' aimed at traditionalists in the box seats. Rossini had only one use for sacred cattle: tournedos with black truffles.
Conductor Antonio Pappano exposes his buffo nature to the camera as he conducts the overture. Watching him burble and twirl, despite the suave perfection of the orchestra in this overture one has to expect hi-jinks in the opera, and one will not be disappointed. Pappano is irrepressible. Every possible 'special effect' -- quirky rubatos, grandiose grand pauses, etc. -- will be exaggerated to the point of mannerism. But it works. It's a natural extension of Rossini's own mannerism.
Likewise, every singer in this spectacular cast is irrepressible in exaggerating the both absurdity of the libretto and the comedy implicit in Rossini's music. Pietro Spagnoli is a different Figaro, not the usual sly upstart but rather a seasoned rogue with generous instincts for young lovers. Alessandro Corbelli, as Doctor Bartolo, is less the hapless old dupe of most production and more a nasty domestic tyrant, hardly a pushover for Figaro's tricks. If you'd never seen the opera before, you might think he has a chance of thwarting the elopement of his ward Rosina with the disguised Count Almaviva despite the dopey schemes concocted by Figaro. Rosina (Joyce DiDonato) is 'handicapped' dramatically; she sings from a wheel chair, having suffered a broken foot in the premiere performance. It's a brave act by DiDonato, yet I might wish we could have seen what she could do as an actress in fully functional control of her body. The most 'original' characterization is that of Count Almaviva, acted by Juan Diego Florez. He may be a Count, he may wield his privileged identity like a club when the time comes, but he's a nervous, sappy adolescent in this interpretation, hardly an accomplished Casanova. He needs Figaro to boost his confidence.
Florez dominates this production, both dramatically and vocally, as I've never seen/heard any Almaviva do before. Most stagings focus on Figaro; in this one, it's Almaviva who sets the pace, gets the laughs, gets the girl, and properly triumphs in his climactic arias. Figaro is relegated to back stage, despite the robust singing and acting of Pietro Spagnoli. Rossini's "Barber", it turns out, is all about the Count.
Of course, any production of any opera is really "all about" the singing, right? That's still true in this new age of operas on DVD, when we see the faces of the singers up close, when a craftier physical acting technique has become a necessity. Look closely at these singers and you'll see that they are wearing microphones in their hair. The sound you'll hear on the speakers in your home is far more balanced than it would be in an opera house; the singers and the orchestra are almost as acoustically integrated as they would be on a studio CD. To my ears, that's all the better, although I know there are people who would prefer a different sort of miking. The singing on this recording, in my opinion, is too good to be wasted; I want to hear every note fully,
Florez is astonishing. Everybody knows that. Nevertheless, I didn't expect such 'historically informed' athleticism from him. He tosses off the flashiest ornaments and arpeggiated phrases of his arias as lightly as a dropped handkerchief. Possibly it was the 'presence' of Joyce DiDonato that inspired him to such virtuosity. DiDonato is a singer thoroughly imbued with the aesthetic of "historically informed performance." She approaches Rossini from the performing tradition of the 18th C baroque and rococo rather than retroactively from the 19th C of romanticism and verismo. In any case, Florez and DiDonato sing this opera in the same stylistic language, and the result is fantastically exciting.
Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier were the stage directors of this 2009 Covent Garden production. I wish, oh I wish, I'd been there!