Touring Barber of Seville Uplifts Despite Budget Restraints

05/04/2012

 Rossini, The Barber of Seville: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of English Touring Opera, Timothy Carey (conductor), Theatre Royal, York, 3.4.2012 (JL)

Cast:

Count Almaviva – Nicholas Sharratt
Rosina – Kitty Whately
Figaro – Grant Doyle
Berta (Marcellina) – Cheryl Enever
Don Basilio – Alan Fairs
Dr. Bartolo – Andrew Slater
Fiorello – Toby Girling

Production:

Director – Thomas Guthrie
Designer – Rhys Jarman
Lighting – Guy Hoare

ETO Production of Barber of Seville Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

I have seen a few Barbers in my time and never a duff production. Maybe there is something about this opera that brings out the best in all the participants, getting them to raise their game as individuals and at the same time work as a team in what is essentially an ensemble piece. Both cast and audience can be carried along on waves of infectious joy, wit, and delicious farce-like plotting and, of course, a relentless succession of wonderful tunes. The credit goes, in the first place, to Rossini, who created, nearly two hundred years ago, what many people believe to be the perfect comic opera. Whilst obeying the many restrictive musical conventions of the time, he creates a stage work of superbly paced narrative in which the characters are all too recognisable human beings displaying so many of the failings and aspirations that go with that status.

This English Touring Opera production did not confound my argument above. It is one that has already been on the road for nearly a month and has had a chance, no doubt, continuously to hone itself. As soon as the overture started, one disadvantage of the relatively a low budget enterprise became apparent. The string section was of near chamber proportions with a total body of only a dozen players. This would not have been so much of a problem were it not for the fact that they were battling against the Theatre Royal’s desperately dead acoustic (a common issue with many of Britain’s main city theatres which are mostly of Victorian design), something that would brutally expose any flaws in ensemble and intonation. The players did splendidly well but they were never going to be able to produce a blooming sound with depth, and never achieve the expected climactic peaks at the end of Rossini’s trademark crescendos. Early on, tenor Nicholas Sharratt has to sing Almaviva’s serenading aria to Rosina and he also had a tussle with the acoustic. He has a fine lyric tenor sound but it is not a powerful voice and his top notes never soared as they might. Nevertheless he warmed up during the course of the evening and his difficult coloratura turn in the final ensemble was a triumph. In fact a steady gathering of momentum and improvement all round was a feature of the evening, things stepping up as each of the characters entered and settled in. After Almaviva, we get the entry of Figaro and Grant Doyle achieved a suitable sense of domination with his commanding baritone and stage presence.

In a nutshell the opera is about a plot to free a caged bird (Rosina) from its prison (guardian Dr Bartolo’s house). The singer of the part of Rosina has to convey both charming innocence and feminine guile. Kitty Whately may not have as fruity a lower register as some mezzos but she rattled through her difficult runs with silken musicality and, with her natural, engaging acting her’s was a notable portrayal. Touring opera company productions are often the place to engage in talent spotting of the up-and –comers and on this form Kitty Whately may have great things to come. Andrew Slater as Bartolo nearly stole the show with his patter numbers and Alan Fairs as Don Basilio supplied a suitably grotesque Don Basilio with his splendid bass. All the cast coped well with their rapid patter routines in the English translation, enabling us (without surtitles) to understand what was being said in all but the more complex ensemble numbers.

As a touring company on a tight budget and necessarily highly portable sets, ETO is never going to be able to deliver lavish, complex scenery. The set consisted of simple flats representing houses that were later turned round to convey Dr Bartolo’s residential interior. This worked perfectly well in a production that, mercifully, was set in its correct 18th century period as we could tell from the fine costumes.

Timothy Carey both conducted and accompanied the recitatives from the keyboard, and, apart from some odd slumps in tempo, kept the score moving.

The premiere of IL Barbiere in Rome in 1816 was famously booed. This was partly because the story had already been set by a more favoured composer, Paisiello. Without football in those days, opera was the nearest thing to a competitive sport in Italy. Two centuries on, history has judged the outright winner to have been the 23 year old upstart, Gioacchino Rossini.

Audiences are a lot less demonstrative nowadays, although by all accounts the London premier of this production at the Hackney Empire had each musical turn greeted with whoops and whistles. Things are more staid up in the Northern Shires (I spotted quite a number of tweed jackets) but in their own way the audience was highly appreciative. People were leaving with spring in their steps.

This was the first opera I have ever attended where the singers did not take individual bows at the end. They all resolutely remained in line, holding hands. I assume this was a statement that without real team work the enterprise simply wouldn’t work. Very fitting.

John Leeman

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