Effervescent Rossini In Wellington

New ZealandNew Zealand Rossini, The Barber of Seville: Soloists, Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus and Orchestra Wellington / Wyn Davies (conductor), The Opera House, Wellington. 2.7.2019. (PM)

NZ Opera’s The Barber of Seville (c) David Rowland

Director – Lindy Hume
Assistant director – Jacqueline Coats
Sets and Costumes – Tracy Grant Lord
Lighting – Matthew Marshall
Dance Captain – Jesse Wikiriwhi
Chorus master – Michael Vinten
Repetiteur/Fortepiano – Fiona McCabe

Count Almaviva – John Tessier
Rosina – Sandra Piques Eddy
Figaro – Morgan Pearse
Dr.Bartolo – Andrew Collis
Don Basilio – Ashraf Sewailam
Berta – Morag Atchison
Fiorello / Officer – Joel Amoso
Ambrogio – Jesse Wikiriwhi

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) was a mere 24 years old when the work that was to prove his greatest success, Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), was performed in Rome. At first the new opera used the title Almaviva to avoid confusion with an already existing setting of the same subject by another composer, Paisiello, but soon reverted to the original title of the play by Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais on which both operas are based. Despite what was by all accounts a disastrous opening night, Rossini’s work went on to completely overtake Paisiello’s setting in popularity, becoming in effect an iconic representation of the art-form in popular culture right up to the present day. And while the composer had his critics – his contemporary, Hector Berlioz, remarked on “his melodic cynicism, his contempt for dramatic and good sense, his endless repetition of a single form of cadence, his eternal puerile crescendo and his brutal bass drum” – his general popularity has spanned the centuries, and (pace Berlioz) his surety of touch in matters both musical and theatrical continues to be explored and valued.

Having said that, I would doubt whether the average operagoer who attended a performance of New Zealand Opera’s current production of The Barber (first here in Wellington and due for a season in Christchurch early in August) would have registered very much ‘serious intent’ in the work, the emphasis being firmly on the comic, ridiculous and farcical. We were invited by this production to simply ‘enjoy’ first and foremost, savour the absurdities and revel in the ridiculousness of it all.

Of course, thanks to its composer’s aforementioned ‘surety of touch’, The Barber seems well-nigh indestructible, whatever the approach – here, the riotous, somewhat out-of-control, almost surreal treatment of the different scenarios produced an almost apoplectic reaction from some parts of the auditorium, which certainly added to the overall ambience of visceral enjoyment and, if nowhere very subtle, the characterisations everywhere burgeoned with energy which swept the action along breathlessly!

I did like Tracy Grant Lord’s set, with its ‘windows of opportunity’ effect, able to be used for both exterior and interior scenes with some inventiveness, a three-sided array of multi-storied observation points, doors, balconies or windows, some with shutters. Figaro’s ‘Largo al factotum’ entrance was made very noisily, from the auditorium, but the rest of the comings and goings were more conventionally stage-set. Matthew Marshall’s lighting ‘played’ with our sensibilities at the beginning, illuminating different door- and window-frames during the overture, but waiting until Act II before really coming into its own during the storm scene, helped by vivid sound effects and expert orchestral playing – delightful!

Despite the silliness and occasional caricaturing, I still found it so very refreshing to have a production of a ‘classic’ presented in a context that didn’t need to self-consciously proclaim, ‘this has been updated to make it relevant for modern audiences’. It was a Barber that by-and-large ‘looked not unlike itself’ in terms of costuming and décor, Tracy Grant Lord’s designs and outfits conjuring up a delicious and enticing sense of period – all the more credit to director Lindy Hume and her assistant Jacqueline Coats for preserving such a retrospective feel for the period suggestive of the libretto, and to their designer’s instinct for marrying the production’s ‘look’ to the ambiences created by the actual music. It meant that we in the audience were treated this time round like intelligent and imaginative observers who could easily identify with scenarios from another time and place and enjoy the process of doing so as part of the theatrical experience.

Morgan Pearse as the eponymous Barber conveyed his character by guile and charm from the outset in ‘Largo al factotum’, using his voice persuasively rather than forcefully, and nicely ‘orchestrating’ his different schemes when plotting stratagems with John Tessier’s Count Almaviva. His later interactions with Sandra Piques Eddy’s Rosina were alive with sparkle, the pair’s vocal and theatrical rapport generating plenty of wit and pace. Eddy herself conveyed a deliciously ‘determined’ character aspect with her ‘Una voce poco fa’, one that made a spirited match for, and a fine vocal pairing with the ardent, confidently sung Lindoro/Almaviva of John Tessier. Both Andrew Collis’s Bartolo and Ashraf Sewailam’s Basilio were voiced and acted with real flair, and Joel Amosa made the most of his brief but important appearances as Fiorello (the opera’s first singing voice) and the Policeman. I also liked Morag Atchison’s ‘Sadie, the Cleaning-Lady’-like Berta, her ‘Il vecchiotto cerca moglie’ suitably rueful, but her character rewarded in the end through the amatory ministrations of her mute but agile colleague-in-service Jesse Wikiriwhi.

With brief but sonorous (determinedly characterful) contribution from the Freemasons NZ Opera Chorus, and on-the-spot accompaniments from Music Director Wyn Davies and Orchestra Wellington, the musical argument unfolded as pliably and winningly as I have ever heard in this work. Entertaining and energetic, as we all would have the right to expect from any production of this iconic masterpiece, this latest NZ Opera production ticked the boxes it needed to and kept the Rossinian effervescence bubbling!

Peter Mechen

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