The humour of Rossini’s Barber can be strangely tricky to bring over the footlights and many directors and designers have come a cropper by trying too hard. If the wit seems effortful something is wrong. Sam Brown’s new production for Welsh National Opera is moderately successful in this regard, much helped by Kelley Rourke’s engaging translation. The diction of the singers was excellent, rendering the surtitles largely superfluous, but this also showed up moments where the word-setting occasionally impeded the natural flow of Rossini’s vocal lines. Ralph Koltai’s sets, atmospherically lit by Linus Fellborn, are imposing and unusually dark for this essentially sunny piece – even Rossini’s storm entr’acte seems a bit of a light shower compared to others he composed!
Brown’s take seems to derive from a fusion of commedia dell’arte, French farce and Monty Python as well as some recognisable British comedy-character stereotypes. There is a great deal of extra business – some of it spot-on, some less so. The wardrobe opening to reveal soloists, chorus and props is a clever device for keeping the flow. Some of the visual gags are good and the idea of “Don Alonso” as a diminutive clone of Don Basilio, complete with smaller accompanying hound, is genius. Other gags are overplayed and distracting – such as Figaro’s page-turning in the singing lesson scene and the business with the syringe in Doctor Bartolo’s aria. On the whole though the evening entertained and time passed quickly.
This was aided by a fizzing and sprightly account of the score from under James Southall. The Overture had lilt and was not remotely metronomic, and it ushered in some lovely playing from the lower woodwinds – bassoon especially. The continuo playing was also spry and Southall kept the pace between end of arias and what followed.
The cast was well-balanced. At the centre of the show was Nicholas Lester’s imposing, mettlesome yet likeable Figaro, with a full high baritone to match. His entrance aria had the swagger required in abundance. Andrew Shore’s Doctor Bartolo was also fine – catching pomposity, irascibility and stupidity in equal measure and making every consonant and syllable matter. He’s a natural comedian. Claire Booth, very much a soprano Rosina, was assured in her coloratura and decorative singing, although her Rosina was less playful than some. This may have been intentional as the character seen in the later parts of Beaumarchais’s tale (and operas based on it) has a rather more serious side to her nature.
Nico Darmanin has a keen stage presence and good comic timing and also the vocal agility for the florid music that Almaviva is given. The voice is not big and when under pressure developed a marring astringent quality – perhaps a little too much too soon? Rosie Hay’s Berta was notable for making much out of little and Howard Kirk likewise made much of his brief appearance as Fiorello. The one performance that failed to catch fire was the Don Basilio of Richard Wiegold whose singing lacked a degree of finesse, particularly in ‘La calumnia’ where the essential dynamic variety was lacking (if very evident in the orchestra). Having to play the character as being visually impaired perhaps was an interpretative idea that did not help him. Nonetheless, the evening as a whole demonstrated well Welsh National Opera’s considerable strengths.
- Also in Birmingham on March 4
- Performances in Llandudno (March 8 & 11), Bristol (March 15 & 18), Southampton (March 22), Milton Keynes (March 29 & April 1) and Plymouth (April 5 & 8)