The Barber of Seville – Opera Holland Park, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Composer: Gioachino Rossini

Conductor: Charlotte Corderoy

Director: Cecilia Stinton

A real-life storm of winds and rain blows across Holland Park from the start of this performance of The Barber of Seville, anticipating the famous musical storm in Act 2. Thus conditions for singers and stoic instrumentalists of the City of London Sinfonia are far from ideal. The theatrical space of Opera Holland Park is delightful, but the acoustics are tricky even on a perfect evening. As it is, the sharp gusts and the billowing side covers make it hard to hear the soloists and even the orchestra gets drowned out on occasions. The unconventional stage – the huge doughnut of the orchestra pit separating the upstage area from the smaller downstage one – also disadvantages the sound quality.

The result is that although the first of the opera’s two acts looks terrific with its Moorish-inspired exterior of Doctor Bartolo’s Seville house, the drama itself doesn’t always fully engage. The opening itself, however, is wonderful, with director Cecilia Stinton making full use of the vast stage and the comic talents of Opera Holland Park Chorus to present the vibrant street life of waiters, café owners and itinerant musicians in bustling movement over the overture. After that, there are all sorts of good moments, but as the lengthy Act 1 draws to a close, there is a sense that the comic energy has declined.

Where this production really sparkles, however, is in Act 2 when the shenanigans between the principals take place in the far more intimate space of the downstage thrust. Suddenly it all makes sense. Seeing the main characters close to and hearing them properly changes our response to them. Mezzo-soprano Heather Lowe becomes mesmerising as Rosina, matching the dazzling ornamentation of her arias to fabulous comic acting. Her suitor, Count Almaviva, has appeared in various guises – both a poor student and an inebriated soldier – but he’d seemed no more than a callow poseur from a distance. Now up close, we get Elgan Llŷr Thomas’s comic brilliance and the full beauty of his tenor voice. Disguised as music teacher Don Alonso, Thomas has all the inventive energy of Figaro, pantomimically miming at the piano, at one point even snatching the baton from conductor Charlotte Corderoy, insisting on taking over her role.

Figaro himself is played compellingly by Paul Grant, fully commanding the stage from the start. Vocally he can handle the difficult acoustics, and as an actor he is masterful, finding all the comic potential of the role. He only needs to glance round for a split second to work out a new strategy. We catch him, for example, spotting an abandoned military jacket and suddenly he has the inspiration for Almaviva’s next disguise. Another stand-out comic performer is soprano Janis Kelly, who turns the mostly silent role of Berta into a masterclass of expressive gesture and cynical wit.

Stephen Gadd gives a good account of Doctor Bartolo, although the decision to change him from a medical doctor to an eccentric butterfly-hunting Englishman doesn’t work particularly well. Jihoon Kim’s rich bass gives him authority as the conniving Don Basilio and Jack Holton’s engaging physical presence as Fiorello suggests his potential for larger roles.

Rossini’s score is of course never less than glorious and Corderoy conducts the City of London Sinfonia with verve.

From a chilly start, this production of The Barber of Seville warms up to a lively finish.

Runs until 21 June 2024

Increasingly lively

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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