Is there really much more to do with The Barber of Seville, Rossini's smash hit tune-fest of an opera? Turns out there is, and it's by turning the hit parade down a couple of notches that the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées breathe new life into an old favourite.
What conductor Jérémie Rhorer gives us here is a performance on period instruments, and it's an absolute delight. Right from the overture, habits formed over the 200 years since Il Barbiere's first performance—bombastic, thumping habits—are stripped back to reveal surprisingly delicate orchestral textures. It would be pushing it to call this a chamber sound, but it's thereabouts. Oh, those clarinets. And oh, those horns.
Director Laurent Pelly's design is stripped back and classy, as characters walk and slide across enormous musical staves. It's as if she's trying to stop us from looking out and beyond – everything we need is right there in the music. And the quid pro quo is that we're able to hear the music with such fresh ears. It is, of course, a frivolous illusion. But it's a very attractive one.
There are frustrating imperfections, which do rather stand out in a production which is otherwise obsessively tasteful. The stylised movements of the chorus serve to pick out Rossini's delicate woodwind illuminations. But someone really needs to tell the chorus if they are bobbing on or before the beat. That particular debate is played out for our delight. And, since the production as a whole treads a fine line between cheeky and hammy, there are occasions (also involving bobbing, actually) where that line is crossed. It's not enough to spoil the fun.