English National Opera’s Barber of Seville is a sure-fire evening’s entertainment — review

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As English National Opera gets down to its spring season, a cloud of unresolved problems continues to hang over the company. Just before Christmas there was an announcement that it had chosen Greater Manchester to be the new base outside London that Arts Council England was demanding, but that leaves as many questions as before.

Are the orchestra and chorus expected to up sticks to the north? Even if they do, who will sing and play for the seasons that will continue at the London Coliseum? Surely the whole reason the Arts Council stopped ENO touring in the 1970s was that it was too costly to move a full-scale opera company around the country?

In the meantime, spurred on by the very real possibility that ENO could be gone for good, its audience has returned in droves. There were long queues for the bars at this revival of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in Jonathan Miller’s production, first seen as long ago as 1987.

Although it shows its age, Miller’s Barber is true to the work, a sure-fire evening’s entertainment. It also usefully presents one of the reasons why ENO is worth saving. Put the show in Italian in front of a first-time opera-goer and it can seem like a comedy with not many laughs. Sing it in English and suddenly it is evident how well scripted and witty it is.

At least one member of the cast at this revival knows exactly what to do. Simon Bailey, fresh from his success in ENO’s The Rhinegold, sings fusty old Dr Bartolo with resonant tone, bags of character and, crucially, immaculately clear words. Every comic line hit its target.

Although this is not at all a classic cast, each singer has something to commend them. Anna Devin offers vocal agility as Rosina. Innocent Masuku sings Count Almaviva with a slim, light tenor, best heard in lyrical passages. Charles Rice has the right brightly focused baritone, with ringing top notes, as Figaro. Alastair Miles, though a touch woolly of voice, plays an amusingly saturnine Don Basilio, and ENO star-of-years-past Lesley Garrett adds a welcome cameo as Berta. Roderick Cox conducts.

★★★☆☆

To February 29, londoncoliseum.org

Sayaka Shoji performs Toshio Hosokawa’s ‘Prayer’ at the Barbican © Mark Allan

A few days earlier an adventurous concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra also looked to the future of music in Manchester. Singapore-born conductor Kahchun Wong is due to take up the post of principal conductor with the Hallé Orchestra later this year and this programme, featuring two pieces of Japanese music, gave a taste of what might be ahead.

Tōru Takemitsu’s well-known Requiem for String Orchestra (1957), an essay in spare threnody, was paired with the first UK performance of Prayer (2021-22) by Toshio Hosokawa. A solo violin acts as a shaman figure imagining the prayers of statues of Buddha as the violent struggles of man eventually find peace in the purification of nature. Sayaka Shoji was the finely judged soloist, surrounded by the Modernist clouds of sound in the orchestra. The music is interesting as texture, less so as content. The concert ended with Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5, weighty, serious but lacking in punch and excitement.

★★★☆☆

barbican.org.uk

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