The Barber of Seville – Rossini – Welsh National Opera (WNO) till 22 October 2021, then touring
Birmingham Hippodrome – 0844 338 500
Reviewer – David H & Paul J Gray – 23 OCTOBER 2021
WNO’s Barber delivers on gags, vocal fireworks – and so much FUN!
Initially, we found it odd that WNO should choose to revise their 1986, Giles Harvegal staging of The Barber rather than their more recent and wackier 2016 version. Perhaps they feel audiences need to be eased back into the theatre with something familiar. Or perhaps, it is just that this older production is so very charming – and such riotous fun.
We are in the early 19th Century. Travelling players have erected an implausibly elaborate makeshift stage in the town square, cluttered with period objets. An onstage gathering of townsfolk helps the players hang the curtain and then settles down to listen to the overture; watching us as we watch them. A clever device which immediately dissolves any barrier between audience and stage, and opens the way to a vaudevillian, free-wheeling, and very knowing style of performance.
The cast is clearly having fun throughout, which is infectious. The performance constantly teeters on the brink of hilarity, even when nothing explicitly amusing is happening, and frequently tumbles over into belly-laugh-funny. The high joke count is helped by the fact the opera is sung in English with a witty translation by Robert David MacDonald – and with a mostly superb cast who demonstrate crystalline diction & a fluid, nuanced approach to recitative.
Just as the production is set physically in the era of Rossini, so is it musically: the singers take spectacular liberties with their melodic lines, ornamenting with delightfully outrageous virtuosity; very authentic. Heather Lowe and Nico Darmanin as Rosina and Count Almaviva respectively are vocally impressive, coping effortlessly with the substantial technical demands of the music while maintaining flawless beauty of tone. Their performances, dramatically, are easy, convincing, engaging.
Nicholas Lester is a commanding Figaro in terms of presence and character. His Largo al Factotum is every inch the crowd pleaser it should be, with ornamented passages rising to places baritones don’t usually venture. Captivating.
Andrew Shore and Keel Watson – in the marvellous Buffa roles of Dr Bartolo and Basilio – create brilliantly realised comic characterizations. Dramatically speaking, Shore is the best Bartolo we have ever seen, and one simply cannot take one’s eyes off Watson. However, both are a little vocally underpowered and unfocused in places during their set-piece arias, losing clarity in the patter passages, perhaps the result of winter bugs?
It would be churlish not to mention Isabelle Peters as the soprano maid, Berta. She makes the most of what can be a thankless part. Her Il vecchiotto cerca moglie is charming and her top notes during Act I finale appreciated by one and all.
The young, dashing conductor, Frederick Brown, is superb: keeping proceedings brisk, bouncy, full of energy and – again – fun. Brown’s is a delightfully fresh reading of the score. The orchestra responds to Brown’s interpretation in great style, with high quality playing. The band, cast and conductor rarely take their eyes off one another, proving that it is not just what a conductor does with a baton to control a vastly complex ensemble of voices & players such as this; it is also what is done with the eyes. This was totally immersive musical theatre.
It goes without saying that the men of the WNO chorus sound lush, entering into the absurdity of the proceedings with relish. There are, however, on occasion, timing issues between the orchestra and singers. But we quibble. The Barber continues to delight, in a glorious production, performed by a sparkling cast. If we could give 4****’s plus an extra half star – that would be a more accurate rating of this splendid production. Go see it.
CAST & CREATIVES
Count Almaviva – Nico Darmanin
Figaro – Nicholas Lester
Rosina – Heather Lowe
Dr Bartolo – Andrew Shore
Berta – Isabelle Peters
Basilio – Keel Watson
Fiorello – Howard Kirk
Officer – Martin Lloyd
Ambrogio – Simon Crosby Buttle
Notary/Mayor – Alistair Moore
Bag Lady – Helen Greenaway
Innkeeper’s Wife – Emma Mary Llewellyn
Innkeeper – Gareth Lloyd
Policeman – Michael Clifton-Thompson
Policeman – Huw Llewelyn
Rosina Fan – Julian Boyce
Berta Fan – Laurence Cole
Rosina Fan – Jasey Hall
Priest – Stephen Wells
The WNO Chorus & Orchestra
Conductor – Frederick Brown
Composer – Gioachino Rossini
Libretto – Cesare Sterbini
English translation – Robert David MacDonald
Director – Giles Harvergal
Staff Director – Sarah Crisp
Designer – Russell Craig
Lighting Designer – Davy Cunningham