Can opera be funny, performed in a tunnel shaft, and be accessible to opera newbies? The answer to all of these is yes, and Pop-up Opera’s production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville is the perfect example. The touring opera company took over the Thames Tunnel Shaft at the Brunel Museum to present a stripped down, minimalistic take on Rossini’s classic. Accompanied by a single piano, the production is solely carried by a strong and capable cast without any flashy set pieces or costumes.
The Barber of Seville’s plot isn’t too complex: it follows Count Almaviva (Ciarán O’Leary), who, using different disguises, attempts over and over again to get into the house of Bartolo (Alistair Ollerenshaw) who is the guardian of the young Rosina (Katie Slater), the Count’s love interest. With the help of Figaro (Leif Jone Olberg), the crafty barber, the Count finally wins Rosina’s love, angering her guardian who wanted her for himself.
With such a simple plotline, Rossini’s opera can easily become flat, but James Hurley’s genius direction brings two hours of unfaltering comedy due to not only the cast’s brilliant comedic skills, but also the creative use of surtitles, which not only translate the Italian words, but comment on them using contemporary language. Never before have I seen an opera where I was waiting with anticipation for the surtitles to appear. And while they truly make the performance instantly more hilarious, they also turn this genre approachable to those who might be new to opera, or classical music in general. Hurley’s direction proves that opera was never meant to be a high-culture genre: it is, and should be, for everyone.
Even though the production is highly entertaining, the music never becomes (excuse the pun) second fiddle. Olberg performs Figaro’s aria with charisma and ease, his well-supported voice full of colour, while Emily Blanch performs the housekeeper Berta’s aria, Il vecchiotto cerca moglie with exceptional skill and an impressive range. The ensemble pieces, such as the statue aria (Come una statua) show how well in tune this cast is, creating beautiful harmonies together even in this unusual, vast space.
Pop-Up Opera embraces its ‘pop-up’ nature, inhabiting the tunnel shaft brilliantly, as if it was made for this space. With witty surtitles, energetic performers and a great amount of self-aware silliness, their take on The Barber of Seville is perfect for opera lovers and newcomers alike.
Pop-Up Opera’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia is on tour until 1 September 2016. For more information and tickets, see Pop Up Opera’s website.
Photo: Richard Lakos