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Leoncavallo: Zazà - Opera Rara

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64th Wexford Festival Opera

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The Magic Flute in San Francisco

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Kitty Whately as Rosina and Jonathan Veira as Dr Bartolo [Photo by Fritz Curzon]
11 Jun 2014

Il barbiere di Siviglia, Holland Park

The geographical and chronological transportation of Rossini’s famous factotum from 18th-century Seville to 19th-century London is director Oliver Platt’s most radical notion in this satisfying, if somewhat straightforward, new production of Il barbiere di Siviglia for Opera Holland Park.

Il barbiere di Siviglia, Holland Park

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Kitty Whately as Rosina and Jonathan Veira as Dr Bartolo

Photos by Fritz Curzon


Into the greys and browns of a Dickensian street — all gas-lights, Peelers, down-and-outs and street urchins — juts the sharply angled exterior of Dr Bartolo’s abode (designs, Neil Irish). From an archway emerges a staggering drunk; he droops against a lamp-post and, annoyed at being awoken by a motley band of musicians, stubbornly sticks his fingers in his ears as the incognito Count Almaviva’s delivers an amorous address to his beloved Rosina. She lingers, tantalisingly glimpsed through the askew — and none too clean — white curtains of the upper-floor bedroom which overhangs the street.

The set intrudes into the fore of the stage, and there is not much room for ensemble choreography; but, this matters little as Platt doesn’t really ask them to do anything other than take their positions and sing — they do the latter very pleasingly. At the start of Scene 2 the oblique walls are heaved open to reveal the mayhem of the scatter-brained doctor’s daily routines, as professionalism and domesticity collide. The split-level house is a mound of muddle: tottering piles of consultation notes and scientific research, optical charts, crumbling treatises. Above Rosina’s dressing table a large drawing of an anatomical eye glares out forbiddingly. Amid the general chaos lurks some unsavoury medical debris — as the pandemonium escalates a severed hand is flung in the street attracting the suspicious attentions of first a ragamuffin and then the metropolitan constabulary — suggesting that the old governess Berta is past her housekeeping prime.

Barber-5.gifKitty Whately as Rosina, Nico Darmanin as Count Almaviva and Nicholas Lester as Figaro

It’s all detailed and precise. And, the simultaneous view of interior and exterior is effective: quotidian life — washing day, bobbies on the beat — forms a commonplace backdrop to the mad capers within. As the self-indulgent lovers ignore Figaro’s advice to flee, we witness Bartolo’s removal of the ladder which they confidently assume will facilitate their escape — a neat touch of dramatic irony. Mark Jonathan’s lighting design is fairly simple and naturalistic, excepting a lurch towards the surreal at the end of Act 1 where, surrounding a spot-lit Bartolo, the plotters bathe in lurid green and pink aptly emphasising the wackiness of the comic commotion.

Design and direction may not surprise, but the cast certainly tell the tale with musical aplomb. Australian baritone Nicholas Lester has a large, opulent voice which he put to excellent effect as the quick-thinking barber. His bass-inclined resonance grabbed the attention from his first entrance. Pushing a stripy-poled hand-cart, this Figaro peddled his talents and wares — some wild wigs dangle from his wagon — with confidence and composure, a nonchalant single swipe of the razor de-whiskering a client during ‘Largo al factotum’. Lester’s lines were clearly formed, of pleasing tone, and his performance was well-paced. His on-stage presence ensured that the uproar never lapsed into anarchy, and when a commanding hand was required he assuredly stepped in.

As the wayward young minx, Rosina, Kitty Whately was likewise superb. Whately’s mezzo has a lovely golden glow at the bottom reminding us, perhaps, that the role was originally written for a contralto. Her lustrous tone projected well, beguiling all; but, this Rosina’s potential for menace was plainly evident, as Whately stropped and pouted in frustration and exasperation. The coloratura of ‘Una voce poco fa’ was cleanly executed, as Rosina turned her indignation on the hapless skeleton collecting dust amid the clutter; Platt might have offered Whately more direction here — she looked a bit uncertain why she was draping the bones with Bartolo’s overcoat — but her comic acumen shone through in the singing lesson.

Barber-6.gifA scene from Il barbiere di Siviglia

Young Maltese tenor Nico Darmanin was an ardent Almaviva and slipped deftly between his varied personae. Lindoro’s velvet frock coat added a splash of colour to the opening scene but I felt that initially Darmanin tried a bit too hard — he has all the notes and a strong, unwavering tone, but perhaps a softer hue would more readily win Rosina’s heart. But, as Darmanin relaxed into the role his sure technique served him well and the decorative lines were stylishly phrased. The tenor also revealed a penchant for comic exaggeration, as the inebriated cavalry-man determined to be billeted chez Bartolo, and even more so as Basilio’s apprentice, cleverly mimicking his master’s mannerisms and his sartorial style. The piano-top shenanigans of Rosina and the Count, under Figaro’s impatient glower, offered playful high-spirits and characterful singing.

As the unfortunate dupe, Jonathan Veira showed why he deserves his reputation as one of the best buffo basses today, making Bartolo the butt of our ridicule but also winning sympathy for the befuddled, bamboozled buffoon.

With William Robert Allenby indisposed, Nicholas Crawley added Basilio’s outré peri-winkle — straight from Pickwick Papers ­ — to Fiorello’s bowler hat, performing both roles excellently and with fine-judged parody. As Berta, Alinka Kozari revealed a bright, nimble soprano, and as she went doggedly about the household chores she was well complemented by Tom Asher’s Ambrogio.

Conductor Matthew Waldren led the City of London Sinfonia through a sparking overture, but from then on things were rather more conservative. Although there was much attention to detail, it felt a bit too earnest; the string ensemble was good and the woodwind and horn solos sang warmly, but the ‘Rossini Rockets’ needed a bit more oomph. Walden’s tempi erred on the side of caution and a greater sense of recklessness, particularly in Act 2 finale, would have added some spice. Perhaps he wished to support his young cast, but there was certainly no sense that they needed cossetting. The thunderstorm was disappointing, and the over-amplification of the digital piano in the recitatives was irritatingly distracting.

Overall this is a smashing Il barbiere: no nasty surprises and plenty of fun. There may be pressure on finances — Irish’s set is all wobbly walls and bendy lampposts — but there is no scrimping on musical values.

Il barbiere di Siviglia continues in repertory until 28 June.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Figaro, Nicholas Lester; Rosina, Kitty Whately; Count, Almaviva Nico Darmanin; Doctor Bartolo, Jonathan Veira; Don Basilio, Nicholas Crawley; Berta, Alinka Kozari; Fiorello, Nicholas Crawley; Ambrogio, Tom Asher; An Officer, Alistair Sutherland; Director. Oliver Platt; Conductor, Matthew Waldren; Designer, Neil Irish; Lighting Designer, Mark Jonathan; City of London Sinfonia; Opera Holland Park Chorus. Opera Holland Park, London, Saturday 7th June 2014.

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