Composer: Gioacchino Rossini
Librettist: Cesare Sterbini
Director: Sam Brown
Reviewer: Barbara Michaels
What would Rossini have made of Welsh National Opera’s new production of The Barber of Seville? This ever-popular opera is not one to be taken too seriously for its storyline: Figaro the barber sees himself as a matchmaker and the chance to make a quick buck or two when he aids and abets Count Almaviva to win the hand of the beautiful ward of Dr Bartolo – an old lech if ever there was one – who is keeping her for himself to the extent that he plans to marry her.
Threatening to burst its seams with joie de vivre, this, WNO’s first new production of Barber for 30 years, is the first of a linked trilogy that climaxes in the world premiere of a new sequel. Innovation is the name of the game from start to finish, from the moment when the overture – frequently performed on its own as a concert piece – opens and the curtain rises to a balletic performance by the excellent WNO chorus holding aloft pairs of giant scissors. I kid you not.
Kelley Rourke’s English translation of Sterbini’s original 1816 libretto is an updated, no-holds-barred version, which throws even more comedy into the pot, with elements of drop-your-trousers (yes, really!) farce thrown in too. Despite this, all the well-known characters appear to greatly enjoy their new persona. Making his debut with WNO, Nicholas Lester is a Figaro with great stage presence, making it obvious from the start who is boss around here and coping well with the famous arias. As the lovelorn Almaviva, masquerading as the penniless student Lindoro in a series of hilarious disguises, Nico Darmanin’s fine tenor serves him well.
With a mostly male cast, Claire Booth in the female role of Rosina carries much on her back in a part that can make or break any performance of this opera. Booth has a soaring soprano that copes seemingly effortlessly with Rosina’s difficult arias but she aces in what must have been a most difficult task. I refer to the fact that she sung the part in WNO’s 2011 production of the opera, which was a different ball game altogether. The multi-talented Booth is possibly one of the few operatic stars in today’s firmament who can pull it off.
With James Southall conducting, the pace of the music never falters, keeping up well with the onstage mayhem, while under the direction of Sam Brown the slapstick comedy of the piece is well to the fore, with more than a nod to Gilbert and Sullivan, seen again in Sue Blane’s gloriously colourful costumes – straw boaters, striped tops et al. As for the sets – veteran designer Ralph Koltai, now 91, who was brought on stage to tumultuous applause on the first night, makes full use of the revolving stage and uses panels with transparent surfaces to give a two-dimensional effect.
At times more musical theatre than opera, this production has a zing from start to finish – but there is a proviso. Too much detail can blur the comedy. Less is sometimes more.
Runs: 13,17,19,23 and 25 February 2016 | Image: Richard Hubert Smith