Frustrating Barber

6 Nov

You can understand, in this climate, why Opera North thought that a revival of its 1986 Barber of Seville would be a good idea.  It’s a popular opera and they presumably hoped that a strong cast – a nice mixture of youth and experience – would somehow overcome the sort of production which is miles away from where they are artistically at the moment.  I saw the performance on 5th November at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle and, by the end, Rossini had pretty much won out, but I spent far too much of the evening cringing and tight lipped – not something you expect at one of the very greatest comedies ever written – and this despite Robert David MacDonald’s elegant and very funny translation – excellently put across by the singers. Interestingly, the theatre was far from full.  I do worry that you can’t sell out two performances of this opera here.

The big problem is Giles Havergal’s production.  I imagine that it looked pretty old-fashioned and arch in 1986.  Havergal’s conceit seems to be that a group of traveling players are bringing their production of The Barber of Seville to a town.  An audience watches, applauds the overture and some arias, we see people walking in front of the stage, offstage hands hand on guitars, props and generally distract.  They are watching a production that makes the old D’Oyly Carte look avant garde: old-fashioned gestures, costumes that nobody ever really wore.  Presumably the point is that having a period audience allows you to get away with that.  I spent the whole of the first act with my teeth gritted at irritating supers getting in the way, at talented young singers who were going through a fancy dress charade.  Even that glorious finale had me irritated rather than amused. If this is all that Opera North can find in this opera, then there’s a problem.  Havergal came back to rehearse the production so you can’t blame staff directors for getting it wrong.

It got a bit better.  It helps that, for my money, Act II is better: the situations funnier, the ensembles glorious and Rossini at his comic best.  Havergal got bored with his supers and there were points where you were simply allowed to enjoy the situations.  By the end I found myself smiling and giggling and admiring the glorious ensembles and timing.  But I can’t see this production winning any converts to the genre or the piece.  I do hope it’s the last we see of it.

The cast was rather good.  Katie Bray is a new name to me.  She has a gorgeous, velvety mezzo, outstanding coloratura technique and a very vibrant, watchable presence.  I don’t think I’ve been as impressed by a new mezzo in this repertory since I heard Della Jones as Cenerentola in the 1970s.  My one criticism was a tendency to make a meal of some of the cadenzas – it felt as though you could have got up, had a drink at the bar and come back to your seat, before some of them finished.  I think she’ll go far.

She was matched by Gavan Ring as Figaro – another new name to me, at least in a leading role.  He has a lovely nutty voice and his way with the role reminded me occasionally of Gobbi.  He has a good presence, seized the opportunities and reminded you that Figaro, generally, is the person who moves the piece along.  It was a strong, hugely confident performance and, again, I’d expect him to have a very strong career indeed.

Nicholas Watts was the Almaviva, dry vocally, particularly early on.  He never made you feel that this was an easy role vocally though equally, he was never unpleasant to listen to.  The personality is nice and he seized the comedy well, doing the disguises particularly well.

Alastair Miles, in a horrendous wig and with make up all over his eyebrows was the hugely experienced Basilio.  If he could have had a different, costume, wig and interpretation, he could have made far more of this rather sinister, nasty character.  It’s always a treat to hear him and even if he’s not quite in his prime any more, it’s great that Opera North can call on him to grace revivals of this sort.

Eric Roberts seems to be the only person permitted to play Bartolo in this production.  You can’t fault his acting or timing but vocally he sounded a bit tired.

Stuart Stratford had prepared the production but obviously wasn’t available to do the Newcastle performances.  Timothy Burke took over the baton.  It’s hard to know how far the performance was his and how far Stratford’s.  We had generally pretty fleet speeds, a stylish overture and considerate accompaniment to the singers.  The orchestra was in slightly routine mood.

So the show sorted itself out by end and I was smiling happily during the lesson scene, the Basilio shenanigans and that glorious ladder trio.  I was glad that I’d seen the cast.  But please can this production now be given an honourable burial.

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