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Reviews

05 Oct 2015

The Barber of Seville, ENO London

This may be the twelfth revival of Jonathan Miller’s 1987 production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville for English National Opera, but the ready laughter from the auditorium and the fresh musical and dramatic responses from the stage suggest that it will continue to amuse audiences and serve the house well for some time to come.

So often I find myself watching, and enjoying, opera productions while at the same time feeling some frustration that although a director has demonstrated abundant invention, distinctive insight, and visual and dramatic imagination, he or she (particularly, dare I say it, if they are dipping into operatic domains from the worlds of cinema or theatre) simply ‘doesn’t know what to do with the music’. This is never a charge that will be made of Miller: every gesture, large or small, is driven by musico-dramatic imperatives. One senses how carefully, and with what imaginative engagement, he has listened to the score, before any directorial decisions are made. In this production, there is sustained narrative focus and credible development. Movement and pace are perfectly judged; humour and gravity are neatly balanced; the design is detailed and engaging, but not fussy; stage blocking is convincing. It all seems so ‘natural’ precisely because the parts are responsive to the score and thus form a coherent whole.

Perhaps the sets are starting to look a bit dusty and as singers reprise roles it’s inevitable that occasionally there may be a sense of routine and repetition. But, the exterior of a street in eighteenth-century Seville would look a little shabby in the gloom of night, and Dr Bartolo’s house is musty and stuffy - Rosina laments that he has confined her to a ‘prison. Moreover, at this revival, directed by Peter Relton, the performances on stage, from both those new to their roles and/or the house and show-stealing ‘old hands’, were winning - although it has to be said that the vocal offerings did not consistently match the dramatic heights achieved.

Miller’s unfailingly sure touch is evident from the first scene, as Fiorello, confidently played by baritone Matthew Durkan, marshals the band of serenading minstrels - lured from a theatrical troupe if the commedia-style costumes are anything to go by (and a fitting allusion, given the commedia origins of Beaumarchais’ comedy on which the opera is based) - before the fortress-like façade of Dr Bartolo’s house. The humour is simple and direct, visual and aural: ‘piano, pianissimo’ is bellowed like a fog-horn, a trunk is dropped with an ear-splitting crash, a ladder emerges from a trunk. As the troubadours strummed their lutes, twirled their parasols, and swayed gently to the Count’s courtly crooning, I was reminded of that blend of tender affection and gentle derision with which we watch the pitiful thespian efforts of Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals when they perform before the Athenian court in A Midsummer Night’s Dream - the more so as Count Almaviva’s band have their very own ‘Moonshine’, holding a lantern aloft.

The arrival of the wily, sometimes wild, barber who directs, complicates and untangles the romantic entanglements is always a vibrant moment at the start of the Act. But, on this occasion baritone Morgan Pearse went for clear-thinking composure rather than exuberant swagger; perhaps this Figaro did not exude quite enough vivacity, particularly in the second Act, but Pearse’s presentation was controlled and carefully considered. ‘Largo al factotum della città’ may have lacked a certain bombast and bluster, but Miller’s details shown through all the more for it - the stopping of the mouths of the barber’s mannequins as he mimics the manic cries for ‘Figaro!’ which ring through Seville, for example. And, this is one of the few times that I have heard Figaro launch into his patter at such a break-neck gallop that the orchestra have to race to catch him up. Moreover, while Pearse’s baritone might have missed a little variety of colour and nuance, the appealing tone projected strongly and truly; every word of the Amanda and Anthony Holden’s terrific translation was clearly heard - in this regard, the decision not to employ surtitles during the recitative was a wise one, especially when the cast included singers of such diction-dazzling calibre as Andrew Shore. And, Pearse’s effortless vocal projection added to our sense of a man-about-town at ease with himself and in calm control of the situation, as when Figaro commandingly interrupted the chaotic maelstrom of the Act 1 Finale.

It is a nice touch, too, to see Figaro genuinely accompany the Count’s serenade. Mexican tenor Eleazar Rodriguez doesn’t have a particularly golden bel canto gleam, but his singing was accurate and pleasant-toned. Rodriguez took a little to find his musical and dramatic equanimity but he responded well in various dramatic situations: he became buoyant in the face of Figaro’s confident authority when he hatches his plan to win Rosina from Bartolo’s grasping clutches, and enjoyed the stage larks of his impersonations as first ebullient drunken soldier and then oleaginous music-master - in the latter guise, cheekily aping Dr Bartolo’s twinging dodgy leg.

Andrew Shore, returning to the role of Bartolo, gave a virtuoso master-class in comic drollery and musical enunciation. His crabby and crotchety Doctor is the epitome of pompous hauteur, and his arrogant self-importance is marvellously undercut by Shore’s perfectly judged physical gags and mannerisms. He knows when to ham it up and when to rein things in; and, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Bartolo when his pince-nez becomes trapped in his harpsichord, nearly strangling him as he feigns a nonchalant pose.

Bass Barnaby Rea is literally and figuratively larger-than-life as Basilio; in fact, it’s a good thing that he has a few inches on Shore, or the latter would risk decapitation when the extravagant broad brim of Basilio’s black felt hat slices threateningly through the air. Rea’s ‘Slander aria’ was evocatively lit by Lighting Designer Thomas Mannings, and though more firmness of line at the bottom might have confirmed Basilio’s malignity, Rea worked well with Shore in the slapstick and made a strong overall impression.

The slight disappointment for me was mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge’s Rosina. Rudge’s strong, intense lower register gave this Rosina a dash of gravity; she was not simply a flighty young madam, rather a frustrated young woman snatching at escape routes - first ‘Lindoro’, then ‘Don Alonso’, and finally Count Almaviva - from her guardian’s lustful intentions. The transition from Scene 1 to Scene 2 in the opening Act is a very effective piece of theatre: the façade slides and the interior of Bartolo’s house swivels, so that now we look through Rosina’s eyes: at the oppressive and claustrophobic medical paraphernalia in the cabinets - coloured tinctures and unctions, anatomical body parts, contorted apparatus - and out through the balcony window, a tantalisingly elusive doorway to freedom. The platform juts through the exterior façade, furthering the sense of peering through the keyhole to espy the maiden’s misfortune.
But, vocally Rudge didn’t inspire much sympathy for Rosina; I found that, at least initially, in ‘Una voce poco fa’, her mezzo lacked the sort of lustre and sheen that would coax the ear and the heart, resulting in a slight sense of detachment. On the whole, the coloratura was even and fluent - after some imprecision in ‘Una voce poco fa’ - but a bit more dazzle and sparkle would have strengthened our impression of Rosina’s high-spiritedness.

Soprano Katherine Broderick, a Cardiff Singer of the World finalist, made a big impact in a small role, as Berta, Bartolo’s housekeeper. A bit too big an impact perhaps, for Broderick has a Wagnerian power which is not necessarily suited to the role of Berta, and it perhaps wasn’t appropriate for the servant to out-sing her masters in the Act 1 Finale. But, Broderick’s Act 2 aria, ‘Il vecchiotto cerca moglie’, was an engaging and lively reflection on the madness of love by one who, despite her years, longs for a bit of romantic action herself.

After a somewhat messy overture, with unnecessarily exaggerated dynamics and some uncertain shifts of tempo, conductor Christopher Allen led the Orchestra of ENO in an acceptable reading of the score, but was not always sympathetic to his cast, who at times struggled to penetrate through the orchestral texture. Given the dramatic elegance of Miller’s business - romantic and comic, equally - it was a pity that too often the pit lacked a similar grace and eloquence.

English National Opera - which has a new Music Director, Mark Wigglesworth, a caretaker Chairman and Chief Executive, no Artistic Director, and faces close Arts Council scrutiny in the coming months - needs something to smile about just now; this revival could do the trick.

Claire Seymour

Figaro - Morgan Pearse, Rosina - Kathryn Rudge, Count Almaviva - Eleazar Rodriguez, Dr Bartolo -Andrew Shore, Don Basilio - Barnaby Rea, Berta - Katherine Broderick, Fiorello - Matthew Durkan; Director - Jonathan Miller, Revival Director - Peter Relton, Conductor - Christopher Allen, Designer - Tanya McCallin, Lighting Designer - Tom Mannings, Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera.

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