We had the dream Latin line-up, led by Juan Diego Florez (below, right) as Almaviva, with Pietro Spagnoli as Figaro, Alessandro Corbelli as Bartolo, and Ferruccio Furlanetto as Don Basilio, with Antonio Pappano in the pit. Florez’s singing was as usual beyond compare, Spagnoli brought an irresistible burly forcefulness to the title role, Furlanetto did astonishing and surreal things with his ‘slander’ aria, while the protean Corbelli became commedia dell’arte incarnate; the chorus nimbly doubled up as musicians, soldiers, and G&S policemen; and DiDonato’s flouncing and petulant opening aria - hurling darts at the wall to underline her frustration - had all the heft one could wish for.
Towards the end of the first act she fell, but picked herself up so fast that one almost felt the fall was part of her act, and the music swept on, with the spiralling madness Rossini injects into his score delivered with perfect ensemble precision. Then came an ominous announcement before the curtain rose for Act 2: DiDonato had badly sprained her ankle, was in considerable pain, but would - with our indulgence - carry on. She reappeared, limping with a crutch, and brought the house down with a complaint (in Italian) about cramp in her foot, whereupon the crutch became an integral part of her act, which proceeded in an entirely unrehearsed but utterly convincing manner. When she systematically wrecked the set in a climactic access of rage, her own physical wreckedness reinforced the comedy. And the rest of the cast improvised round her, with Florez gallantly helping her to her feet when necessary. Indeed, the improvisatory spirit seeped into everything: when, after Florez’s final aria, the house erupted into the longest mid-act ovation I have ever heard there, Corbelli - required by the libretto to express envious resentment - ostentatiously looked at his watch.
Only the next day did we learn that the ‘sprain’ was in fact a break, and that she would finish the run in a wheelchair, hoping she hadn’t done too much damage to the broken fibia by walking on it for two hours (having watched my wife make that very same mistake after breaking her ankle, I know whereof she speaks). DiDonato’s blog tells the story in graphic detail, with pictures - yankeediva.blogspot.com
Meanwhile, much of the charm of this evening comes from the casual did-we-really-see-that? conjuring tricks perpetrated by directors Moshe Lieser and Patrice Caurier and their designer Christian Fenouillat: sometimes their work is too bland, but here - much aided by the ROH’s state of the art machinery - it has wonderful edge. But if DiDonato was the star among stars, it’s worth remembering that such constellations don’t happen by accident, and that with singers’ diaries booked four years in advance, dream teams are often impossible to assemble even if you’ve hit on the right people. All credit for this goes to Covent Garden’s elegant and shadowy casting director Peter Katona, long the company’s secret weapon.
If design was central to this production’s success, it’s even more crucial to the ROH’s current revival of ‘Un ballo in maschera’. Mario Martone’s take on Verdi’s monolithic tragedy boasts Ramon Vargas - now at the top of his form - as the doomed governor, with superbly resonant support from Dalibor Jenis as his friend-turned-murderer. But the trump cards here are Sergio Tramonti’s sets. I won’t give away the conjuring trick which illuminates the last act, except to say that no other opera designer has ever used giant mirrors to more riveting effect.
The ROH's 'Barbiere di Siviglia' will get the free big-screen treatment on July 15 at cinemas up and down the country: new venues this year are in Bristol, Cardiff, Middlesbrough, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Swansea and Waltham Forest.