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Opera Australia’s The Barber of Seville is remarkable musical theatre at its best March 30, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music, Opera.
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Sydney Opera House, Opera Theatre

Sydney, Australia

Thursday March 24th, 2011

The Barber of Seville Gioachino Rossini

Opera Australia

Anthony Legge, Conductor

Elijah Moshinsky, Director

Opera Australia Chorus

Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra

José Carbó, Baritone: Figaro

Dominica Matthews, Mezzo-soprano: Rosina

John Longmuir, Tenor: Count Almaviva

Jud Arthur, Bass-baritone: Basilio

Andrew Moran, Baritone: Dr. Bartolo

Opera Australia’s production of the Rossini magnum opus The Barber of Seville is a period piece, featuring an era a century later than the one in which it was composed.  In this revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s production, director Cathy Dadd masterfully transports the action from the classical period of the 1810s to the silent movies of the 1910s.

The production stays meticulously faithful to the era, with the men wearing boaters and gaiters, and the leading woman breaking into Charleston once in a while.  Even the libretto is adapted to make reference to John McCormack, the Irish tenor whose career reached its height in the second decade of the 20th century.

The story is ridiculous enough.  An aspiring young aristocrat falls in love with the ward of a fuddy-duddy doctor, and disguises himself as a drunken soldier and music teacher to win the love-match against the guardian, with the town’s dogsbody providing assistance along the way.  Based on the first play in the trilogy by French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais, The Barber of Seville was written 30 years after Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, but is its narrative prequel.  The central character is the wily Figaro.

Let’s face it, Rossini’s opera buffa has all the elements of farce susceptible to dramatic manipulation of the highest order, but this production stands out because of its perfect execution.  An incredible plot, ridiculous disguises, unlikely, larger-than-life characters and double-takes are masterfully brought together in a melodramatic silent-movie treatment by an outstanding cast effortlessly working together.

This version of The Barber of Seville is a visual feast.  It opens with a set of miniature terraced houses, replete with mechanical marionettes and sprinkled with disproportionally tall palm trees stretching to an arched moon in the sky.  This undersize Iberian resort gives way to a massive and sturdy cross-section of Dr Bartolo’s duplex residence-cum-surgery that fills the entire stage for the rest of the evening.

The characters run freely up and down the stairs and in and out of the various rooms without the set swaying at all.  This ingenious contraption creates a split-screen effect, with simultaneous action taking place in different parts of the set.  As Lindoro and Dr Bartolo battle it out in the sitting room, for example, the nurse Berta comically manipulates the neck-brace of a hapless patient in the surgery, culminating in a bout of gin-and-vodka binge drinking.

In comedy, timing is everything, and rarely have I seen such perfect timing and rapport among all members of the cast.  They flawlessly move from one antic to another, falling over each other throughout the set without missing a beat in the demanding musical synchronisation, even in the rapid-fire tongue-twisting choral recitatives.

John Longmuir as Lindoro and Count Almaviva is somewhat overly chubby and too much of an effeminate aesthete for my liking, especially in the opening scene in which he appears in a white suit with a red buttonhole.  His voice is somewhat tentative and thin at the beginning, easily upstaged by Figaro in his grand entry from the back of the auditorium.  Fortunately, it strengthens as the show progresses, eventually hitting all the high notes with effortless clarity.

José Carbó as Figaro is every inch the suave, mercenary opportunist ready to profit from all situations in which he finds himself: “my mind is like a volcano…at the thought of money,” he declares.  He effectively accentuates his rich baritone voice with solid projections and precise diction.

Dominica Matthews’ Rosina combines good acting with some fine coloratura singing.  Her voice is silky and flexible.  Andrew Moran as Dr Bartolo, the delusionary, ageing dunce with grand amorous designs on his young ward, exudes moronic gullibility. Jud Arthur as Rosina’s music teacher Don Basilio is a resonant bass.

The varied performance of the minor characters, in arias that resemble throwaway lines in a comedy, adds to the ingeniousness of the production.  Bartolo’s buxom housekeeper Berta has only one memorable aria in the entire opera, and Teresa La Rocca carries it off to a breathtaking climax.

Also worthy of mention is Christopher Hillier.  Although his Ambrogio, Bartolo’s servant, has no singing part, his zombie-like makeup, deadpan expression and sluggish movements stir up a great deal of mirth among the audience.  I wonder, though, whether the cabaret make-up for the rest of the cast, with everyone appearing in a lifeless pallor, is necessary.

It may sound belittling of the orchestra, but in comparison with the captivating visual and vocal performance on stage, the musical accompaniment is almost an unnoticeable side show.  No doubt it provides the melodic and rhythmic momentum that moves the action along, yet the tone and colour of the strings may not stand up to the close scrutiny of a symphonic concert.

Opera Australia’s production of The Barber of Seville is remarkable musical theatre at its best, with all the elements perfectly executed and working seamlessly together to create a sum far greater than the parts through.  This innovative company has an unparalleled ability to bring a refreshing edge to even well-worn masterpieces.

(This review also appears on Bachtrack.com)

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