United Kingdom Rossini, The Barber of Seville: (Revival Premiere) Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Alexander Polianichko (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 22.09.2011 (GPu)
Conductor: Alexander Polianichko
Director: Giles Havergal
Designer: Russell Craig
Lighting Designer: Gerry Jenkinson
Chorus Master: Stephen Harris
Count Almaviva: Andrew Kennedy
Figaro: Jacques Imbrailo
Rosina: Christine Rice
Bartolo: Eric Roberts
Basilio: Clive Bayley
Berta: Megan Llewellyn Dorke
Fiorello: Philip Lloyd-Evans
Ambrogio: Paul Gyton
Officer: Jack O’Kelly
Notary: Howard Kirk
Children: Samuel Barden, Henry Lloyd, Daniel Marsh, Johnny Robinson
Less than a week before this latest revival of Giles Havergal’s much loved production of The Barber of Seville, the Welsh National Opera’s audience had been presented with a very different operatic Seville – that of John Caird’s new production of Don Giovanni. Where Caird’s Seville was appropriately dark and menacing, full of the spirits of revenge, rape and murder, Havergal’s Seville is full of vitality and happily shallow emotions (in which category one might reasonably include Almaviva’s feelings for Rosina if familiar with one’s Beaumarchais or Mozart). Where Caird’s production was full of allusions to the visual arts, primarily the sculptures of Rodin, it is to theatre in general and to opera in particular that Havergal’s Barber largely makes its allusions
There is, throughout, a self-aware theatricality to proceedings. The scaffold stage-on-the-stage, pitched at several levels, has its curtain lifted (a curtain decorated in a pastiche of the early nineteenth century manner) before our eyes, and ensuing events are witnessed by an on-stage audience who come and go (so that we have the pleasure of watching them watching, applauding, reacting). One might read the device as implying that that onstage audience is watching a performance by a travelling opera company (with Figaro as actor-director?); or simply that in a plausibly Mediterranean fashion much of life is lived under public scrutiny – in the square as much as within walls. Supplemented by the witty allusions in Robert David Macdonald’s fine libretto to the ‘new’ opera ‘Love Laughs at Locksmiths’ (a proverbial title, but also the title of an 1803 comic opera by George Colman, just over ten years before the Barber), Bartolo’s insistence that in his day ‘opera was opera and men were sopranos’ (illustrated by a fine piece of mock castrato vocalisation), by quotations from Shakespeare and allusions to Mozart, the whole makes a rich diet of theatrical game and intertext.
Giles Havergal’s production was first performed in Cardiff (at the New Theatre in those days) as long ago as May of 1986. It still ‘works’ – which seems to be the right kind of verb for a production which is an efficient, meticulously planned comic engine, maintained by repeat attentions from Havergal at each revival, to ensure its continued efficiency. Physical placement and movement, entrances and exits, have the precision necessary in good comedy and the whole thing shows absolutely no signs of needing to be sent to the operatic scrap yard in the near future. It continues to allow Rossini’s music and Cesare Sterbini’s take on Beaumarchais (mediated to us by Macdonald) to communicate very effectively with an audience. It isn’t a production that troubles itself too much with the political implications of the text, preferring to lavish attention on the way the work draws on stock comic types and situations – and it makes a good job of the choice it has made.
The nature of the production is such that it requires unselfish teamwork from its performers, and this it gets. Andrew Kennedy is one of our most versatile tenors and, whether one hears him singing Mozart or Britten in the opera house, or Vaughan Williams and Elgar in the concert hall, he never seems to disappoint. Here his lyrical tenor was a delight and the characteristic intelligence with which he handles text was a repeated joy. Jacques Imbrailo was a vigorous and energetic Figaro, assured and competent in all that he did, though occasionally just a little underpowered vocally; he worked well in partnership with Kennedy and their voices blended attractively. Christine Rice was a vivacious Rosina, the vocal range even, impressive at both top (where there was a strikingly fluid agility) and bottom, and her stage presence was engaging throughout. Eric Roberts has played Bartolo in many a production of the Barber (including this one on more than one occasion) but there was nothing merely routine about the way he tackled the role on this occasion. His is not the largest of voices and he sometimes lost the battle with the orchestra, but he delivered his comic patter with panache and conviction and remains an excellent physical comedian. Clive Bayley’s Basilio was consummately unpleasant (as he should be) – a nasty piece of work whose nastiness found memorable expression in a fine performance of the ‘Calumny’ aria and whose responsiveness to money had an almost Pavlovian directness. Megan Llewellyn Dorke, stepping up from the chorus, worked the humour well in situation after situation and made the most of her second act aria (Il vecchiotto cerca moglie), persuasively full of wise observation and mixing amusement and sadness rather beautifully.
Orchestra and Chorus, under the direction of Alexander Polianichko, were adroit and effective in pretty well everything that they did, and there were very few moments when voice(s) and orchestra were in danger of sliding apart (a recurrent danger in this opera). I wouldn’t say that Polianichko convinced me that he was an entirely natural Rossinian, especially in the reading of the overture, but he and the orchestra certainly played their part in a satisfying, richly theatrical evening.