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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)


Opera Australia’s scintillating production of Carmen February 13, 2011

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

Sydney, Australia

Tuesday February 8th, 2011

Carmen Georges Bizet

Opera Australia

Guillaume Tourniaire, Conductor

Francesca Zambello, Director

Rinat Shaham, Mezzo-soprano: Carmen

Richard Troxell, Tenor: Don José

Nicole Car, Soprano: Micaëla

Shane Lowrencev, Baritone: Escamillo

Opera Australia Chorus

Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra

In an opera of such popularity as Carmen by Georges Bizet, it wouldn’t be easy to please an audience likely to be inured to a variety of performances of arias such as Habanera and The Toreador’s Song. Yet Opera Australia made a thoughtfully constructed and well vindicated attempt.

It is well accepted that the role of Carmen has to be quite outstanding for any production of the opera to be successful.  Israeli mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham is every inch the sensuous, taunting, manipulative vixen she has to be.  Her voice is tenacious, her tone exudes Latin passion, her phrasing is expressive and her writhing choreography finely chisels her mercurial gypsy character that pervades the entire production.

In sharp contrast to the fickle and vituperative Carmen, the purity of heart and rustic innocence embodied in Micaëla provide a soothing overlay to what is otherwise a harsh and brutal story.  Nicole Car’s portrayal of this piteous antipathy to Carmen in the solo in Act III is easily the moving tear-jerker in the entire performance.

Richard Troxell has a fine tenor voice that does not tear into the high notes with vehemence.  His performance as the somewhat faint-hearted and susceptible Don José is very credible and quite rightly exasperating.

Shane Lowrencev, tall and slim, cuts a dashing figure as Escamillo, the opportunistic and vain torero that eventually captures Carmen’s heart and causes Don José’s downfall.  His voice is less robust than it needs to be, and therefore carries with it less of the virility that the part requires, at times drowned by the unobtrusive orchestral accompaniment.  Yet visually his height effectively towers over the diminutive Don José – quite a clever stroke of casting.

Under the direction of Guillaume Tourniaire, the orchestra puts up a fine performance, in various places accentuating Bizet’s skill as an orchestral composer.  The elegant interplay between flute and harp that opens Act III is refreshing and delightful, providing an apt suggestion of Micaëla’s solo a few moments later.

The costume and set deserve some mention as well.  The simple but solid backdrop provides vital and very flexible support to the changes in mood and ambience of the four acts.  The garish, gold-plated costume of the bull-fighters in the last act, accompanied by a richly decorated cart of flowers, brings the show to a dazzling conclusion.

I suspect that even the most Carmen-weary audience would have been totally satisfied with Opera Australia’s production.

(This review also appears in Backtrack.com)