THE BARBER OF SEVILLE
Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre
Thursday July 21
There’s a lot to like about the new production (shared with Seattle Opera and New Zealand Opera) of Rossini’s masterwork, presented by Opera Queensland. The single set works pretty well; Matthew Marshall’s lighting design has some surprises but little obtrusiveness; Lindy Hume’s direction has some excellent touches of laugh-out-loud comedy as well as a few spots that are groan-worthy. Roland Peelman has made a seemingly effortless glide from the rarefied Song Company recital scene to the pit of Brisbane’s Playhouse, and the Opera Queensland Chorus made a good showing in this version which gives extranumeraries a lot of scope; probably more than Rossini would have imagined, but who’s looking?
More importantly, the set of principals I saw were well-prepared, as close to note-perfect as the composer allows, given the frantic pace of a few ensembles. This performance – and, I assume, the others in which he was cast – were dominated by Brett Carter who has enjoyed plenty of experience in the title role. He has a solid and flexible baritone, evident from his self-introductory aria which maintained its polysyllabic fluency without garbling or leaving out notes. A lithe figure, costumed to accentuate his height, Carter shows an appealing character, responsive to everybody else and slotting into place with admirable skill. Possibly his finest showing is Act 1 where the sequence from Largo al factotum, through the sparkling All’idea di quel metallo/Ah, che d’amore duet with Almaviva, across the interchanges with Rosina, up to the brilliant finale Carter sustained his line with equanimity and proficiency.
He had companions in this professionalism. David Hibbard’s Don Basilio surprised by the vibrancy and power of his vocal equipment, the La calunnia solo given with just enough suggestiveness, not falling into the trap of over-emphasizing its inbuilt crescendo. In fact, each time Hibbard opened his mouth, that orotund bass impressed for its masculine darkness, as though the singer had just come from an audition for Boris. As with Carter, the singer worked efficiently in ensembles, notably the Mi par d’esser gallop.
Andrew Collis confused us very nicely. On his first entrance, announcing to Basilio that he intended to marry his ward that day, his Bartolo looked and sounded the stock characterisation: elderly to the point of doddering, vocally reserved, an impossible match for the young person who has just introduced herself at length. Two scenes later and Bartolo appeared with a full head of post-Elvis hair, a much more aggressive vocal colour, altogether a more formidable manipulator (he thinks) of the household and all who live in it. As with his fellow baritone/bass principals, Collis made a coherent personality, riding over others when required, although his final capitulation to events could have been negotiated with more amplitude; as it was, Bartolo’s two-line surrender was a side-of-stage business, unremarkable in this staging even though it triggers the exhilarating last number.
Emily Burke made a colourful Berta; at first, a potentially malevolent guardian for Rosina, then more inclined to mischief. Her account of this character’s one chance to shine, Il vechietto cerca moglie, successfully communicated exasperation with the whole mess going on in the Bartolo establishment, possibly a tad heavy in its enunciation of a pretty simple jogging tune. Brian Lucas as the almost-silent Ambrogio presented a character something like an albino Lurch on secondment from the Addams Family, decrepit but entertaining for his clumsiness – right up to the point where he and Berta clearly have off-stage sex, after which their appearances were played for lustful laughs and, of course, they attracted your eyes at every entrance after the mid-Act II storm, right up to the final curtain where they were placed centre-stage: a down-to-earth working-class counterbalance to Almaviva and Rosina’s semi-aristocratic infatuation. Shaun Brown as Fiorillo opened the opera efficiently, preparing the stage for his master’s unproductive serenade and did so with ample fussiness and that anticipated hopeless ineptitude in keeping his hired musicians under control.
Virgilio Marino sang Almaviva, the disguised count in love with Bartolo’s ward who eventually gets the girl. His opening appearance was not reassuring; the treatment of Ecco ridente in cielo sounded heavy-handed, the line delivered with force rather than lilting, as though Marino wasn’t sure that he’d be heard over Rossini’s placid string support. Not every tenor is a Tagliavini but this opera is not coloured for drama and the Count has to show suppleness and amorousness. Much better came later on when Marino shared vocal exposure, and you could not find much to complain of in his drunken soldier impersonation. But you were left thinking that a lot less force and grinding effort would have given the work better service.
Much the same lack of lucidity informed the opening Una voce poco fa of Katie Stenzel whose ornamentation came over as studied rather than frolicsome. I’m unsure as to who started this fashion for large infusions of fioriture in the aria – it might have been an expectation from Righetti-Giorgi right up to Sutherland – but unless the embellishments can be tossed off without stress, then the piece’s progress turns into a series of tension-inducing hurdles. And again, as soon as Stenzel moved into recitative, Rosina became the attractively determined and quick-thinking personality that should shine out from every bar she sings. Further on, Stenzel showed a clean pair of vocal heels in the decorated opening strophes to Freddo e immobile, although admittedly the line here lies fairly low.
Some moments during the production seemed odd, if not inappropriate. Having the chorus move into slow-motion/freeze positions during the Act I finale was preferable to having them all standing around simply singing, but the effect looked laboured, not at all suggestive of the green-lit phantasmagoria of confusion that was intended. And the idea of turning the music lesson into sexual mimicry, with Rosina gasping through her aria and Almaviva employing his harpsichord as a penile substitute was effective in amusing the audience – but is it in the music? And, more importantly, does it gel with the rest of the work’s action? I thought it didn’t, but then I’m a prude from down south.
Peelman’s conducting of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra – or some of it – was adroit, inclined to hurry the work along, which I like. The overture had some dodgy brass moments but the string body generated a full-bodied output in this medium-sized theatre. Still, the outstanding instrumental work of the evening came from guitarist Andrew Veivers who spent a lot of time onstage providing the accompaniment for the recitatives – from memory. That’s the kind of touch that makes a performance spring to life.
In all, a brisk and attractive Barber, then, noteworthy for its eponymous hero and the senior characters of the tale. For all my reservations about the young lovers’ vocal straining, much of the performance proved highly enjoyable, often clever in its disposition of personnel, and eventually satisfying even the most carping observer at that brilliantly uplifting last polonaise, Di si felice innesto, choreographed with modest restraint by the Sydney Dance Company’s Rafael Bonachela.