Before Count Almaviva became a baritone and a lecher, he was a tenor and bit of a stalker. As Rossini’s The Barber of Seville is an operatic adaptation of the first play in Beaumarchais’s Figaro trilogy, it’s hard not to make comparisons with Mozart’s version of its continuation, The Marriage of Figaro, which came 30 years earlier. The Count’s courtship of his Countess-to-be is much more conventional romantic comedy territory and I couldn’t help but find it less interesting than the dizzying plotting and mind games of Figaro – it isn’t often that a (sort-of) sequel is superior.
In farcical fairytale style, the fabulously wealthy and nobly-born Count Almaviva has fallen head-over-heels for the lovely heiress Rosina, confined to the house by her guardian Doctor Bartolo, who plans to marry her himself. With the help of his old acquaintance, town barber Figaro (is the guardian-ward relationship plus barber in Sweeney Todd mere coincidence?), Almaviva is able to don various disguises in order to win Rosina’s heart and steal her away from her protector cum gaoler – unsurprisingly, things don’t go quite according to plan.
Thomas Guthrie’s straightforward production for English Touring Opera features capable, strongly-sung individual performances, but, on the first night, there was a lack of chemistry and vitality that dragged out the three-hour running time (though it did perk up in the second half). Sung in English (which doesn’t do the all the repeated phrases many favours) with a libretto by David Parry, the decision not to use surtitles proves to be a mixed blessing: it’s quite liberating to be able to focus on what’s going on onstage without any distractions, but there are several sections that are fairly incomprehensible without them. The words in Bartolo’s patter arias get lost and the police skirmish that concludes the first half is all bit of a muddle.
Nicholas Sharratt is an affable Almaviva and Kitty Whately makes a pert, inquisitive and likable Rosina; in fact, she’s very much like Susanna, Figaro’s future bride, which makes me think that she and Figaro (played with natural authority by Grant Doyle), with whom she has more in common than the Count, should have ended up together. Andrew Slater enjoys most of the broadest comedy as the doddery old Bartolo with a haphazard medical style, scolding Rosina while brandishing his amputation saw.
There’s something quite suburban (that isn’t meant in a disparaging way) about Rhys Jarman’s easy-to-tour set, which uses flat boards representing houses and shops with light-up windows that turn inwards to become interiors. Against the silhouette of a cityscape with the man in the moon looking down, it has a cosy and slightly claustrophobic small town feel.
As the tour continues, the cast should ease into playing their characters in front of the audience. It’s a pleasure to see something other than panto in the Hackney Empire, which must be one of London’s most beautiful theatres, and adds up to a solid evening, if not the most exciting.
The Barber of Seville is touring until May 25. For full details, visit the English Touring Opera website.
Tags: English Touring Opera, Hackney Empire, Rossini, The Barber of Seville, Thomas Guthrie