OperaUpClose aims to bring operas to whole new audiences by showing off the form in all its glory, in accessible, surprising stagings of classics “without compromising on musical standards”. Unfortunately, what struck me first about this version of The Barber of Seville (or Salisbury, to be geographically accurate), were some vocal weaknesses in the piece; despite plenty of charm, it is difficult to overlook these issues.
As the Marquis, Philip Lee offers some rather strained vocals, and is more than a tad over-generous with the vibrato. The affectations in his performance, perhaps suitable for this Austen-era farce, nonetheless become tiring quickly. I couldn’t help feeling like I was watching someone who is acting up being an opera singer and overdoing it, rather than letting Rossini’s sparkling score flow naturally.
As Rosina, Elinor-Jane Moran also has some vocal issues early on, as the highest notes unfortunately squeak rather than soar. However, her performance grows in confidence as the piece progresses, and some solos are beautifully rendered. She brings plenty of comedy and attitude to the character that certainly forgives other faults.
Completing the principal characters, Richard Immergluck (Figaro), Julian Charles (Basil) and Dickon Gough (Bartleby) provide a strong trio of performances. Immergluck charms us with his rich tones and knowing comedy, making the strongest connection with his audience – something which is a little lacking elsewhere, given that the company pride themselves on intimate and accessible productions. Meanwhile Charles has the most powerful vocals of the cast, while Gough’s scene-stealing physical comedy raises many a laugh.
However, given that OperaUpClose promote adaptations that are “exciting” and “theatrical” with “truthful” acting, I was surprised by how twee this show is. There’s nothing wrong with light entertainment and gentle comedy, but the abiding thrill of Rossini’s work here feels diluted. This stretches to the musical accompaniment: despite the obvious talents of pianist Elspeth Wilkes, this rendering of the score lacks richness and – despite the obvious practical reasons for the decision – feels reductive.
It isn’t for lack of effort, and it’s evident that the cast are enjoying themselves immensely. Robin Norton-Hale’s new translation contains not only Austen-esque hints (“it’s a fact universally acknowledged that every single man…”), satirising the ‘love at first sight’ element of this and other romantic comedies. Yet it also contains flashes of modernity that keep the libretto fresh and the audience engaged. It’s a shame that in ensemble passages many of these words are lost: the linguistic acrobatics are undoubtedly impressive, but become problematic when they muddy the meaning.
The Barber of Seville has enough charm and amiable humour to keep the audience entertained; however, this is a safe production that won’t necessarily bring any new audiences to this genre.
The Barber of Seville played at JW3 on 6 July, and continues at the Brewhouse Theatre & Arts Centre in Taunton in September. For more information, see the OperaUpClose website.