Frothy, Riotous Barber of Seville in Dickensian Setting

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rossini, Il Barbiere di Siviglia: Opera Holland Park Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus / Matthew Waldren (conductor), Holland Park, London, 13.6.14 (RB)

Cast: Figaro: Nicholas Lester Rosina: Kitty Whately Count Almaviva: Nico Darmanin Doctor Bartolo: Jonathan Veira Don Basilio/Fiorello: Nicholas Crawley Berta: Alinka Kozari Production Director: Oliver Platt Designer: Neil Irish Lighting Designer: Mark Jonathan

Rossini’s Barber of Seville was written in 1816 reputedly over a period of just 13 days. The first performance was an unmitigated disaster with the audience – probably at the instigation of one of Rossini’s rivals – greeting the opera with booing and hissing. Since that ill fated opening the opera recovered and has become one of the most famous operas in the entire repertory. It is based on the first play of Beaumarchais’ Figaro trilogy and describes how Count Almaviva enlists the help of wily Figaro (the eponymous Barber of the title) to win Rosina from the clutches of her guardian, Doctor Bartolo.

This upbeat and imaginative production from Opera Holland Park transports the action from 18th Century Seville to 19th Century London. We open to a typical Dickensian street scene with gas lamps providing nicely subdued lighting, instrumentalists wheeling a piano on to the street and throwing an impromptu party, costermongers and barrow boys shouting to sell their wares during Figaro’s entrance, and a drunken tramp sleeping under the street lamp and covering his ears to drown out the noise. The costumes seemed to come straight from the pages of Oliver Twist and helped bring Rossini’s rogue’s gallery of characters to life: in the opening scene Figaro was wearing a top hat and velvet waistcoat, Almaviva was wearing tartan check trousers and a purple waistcoat and natty cap, while other characters were wearing bowler hats. In the second scene the exterior walls of Bartolo’s house come apart and we enter the interior of the house. I liked the clutter of the set – anatomical drawings, assorted medicine bottles and a human skeleton were all on display. Some of the hair styles were a hoot: Basilio and Almaviva (in disguise as Don Alonso) both had outrageous fluffy tinted bouffants rising to a point while Bartolo was sporting a pudding bowl page boy type toupee.

Nicholas Lester and Kitty Whately both did a superb job with the two principal roles. Lester’s Figaro was a likeable rogue full of wit, energy and low cunning. He brought considerable vocal heft and virility to the role and was highly attentive ot issues of balance and coorindation during the ensemble numbers. Largo al Factotum was a complete triumph with Lester making light work of the rapid coloratura and bringing an unfettered exuberance to this most famous of arias. Whately has an absolutely glorious voice and she brought a gorgeous lustre to her Act 1 aria Una Voce Poco Fa together with very supple phrasing and elegant shaping of the intricate vocal lines. Her Rosina was spirited and playful and she made every twist and turn of the drama appear fresh and new as we increasingly root for her in her attempts to escape from Bartolo. Nico Darmanin is a very fine actor with excellent comic timing and he gave us a sympathetic and witty portrayal of Almaviva. He produces a very nasal sound that will not be to everyone’s taste and the tone was a little thin on occasion but he handled Rossini’s vocal pyrotechnics with aplomb and in the ensemble numbers he provided the necessary glue to help make them sparkling and brilliant.

There was strong support for the principals from the rest of the cast. Jonathan Veira’s handling of Bartolo’s tongue twisting aria A un Dottor Della mia Sorte was a tour de force: the tone was rich and warm and the rapid coloratura was clean and incisive. Alinka Kozari also did an exceptionally fine job with Berta’s aria producing a very pure and powerfully projected tone. Nicholas Crawley was originally down to play Fiorello in this production but he doubled up to play Don Basilio as Robert William Allenby was indisposed. He gave us some robust and well executed singing in the role of Fiorello and he did well to transform himself into the role of Basilio in the second scene. I thought he started Basilio’s aria well but he needed to project more and I was not convinced that he was completely on top of the complex vocal writing.

Matthew Waldren did a great job in keeping the arias and big set piece numbers on track. I loved the orchestra’s mock heroics, playfulness and winning exuberance in the overture (the woodwind section were particularly good). Waldren provided a very attentive accompaniment to the principals and set piece numbers were superb – I loved the way the the Act 1 finale was allowed to build nicely into a frothy, riotous piece of high camp.

Overall, this was a great performance of one of the great comic masterpieces of the repertoire – go and see it!

Robert Beattie

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