Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Barber of Seville review – a production as sharp as Figaro’s razor at Opera Holland Park

4, 6, 8, 11, 13, 14, 16, 19, 21 June 2024

Be transported from Kensington to the South of Spain.

The Barber of Seville

The Barber of Seville (Photo: Ali Wright)

Opera Holland Park has frequently proved its affinity with Rossini’s most famous operas, having previously presented The Barber of Seville in 2014 and La Cenerentola in 2016. On both those occasions the director was Oliver Platt, and his Barber was particularly impressive as he set the action in a Victorian terraced street. If the opera ended up feeling a little grittier than usual, this new production by Cecilia Stinton could not be more different, as it paints the most vivid picture of a sun baked Seville.

As with all productions at the venue, the stage surrounds the orchestra with the higher performance area behind it and the lower ‘plateau’ in front being connected by gangways that run either side of the pit. In Neil Irish’s set, Dr Bartolo’s house is represented by a row of columns that could have come straight from Córdoba’s Mezquita, though they also represent Moorish architecture more generally. With the light falling on these at the start of the evening, the whole area feels just as radiant as anything to be found in Andalusia. The stage is cleverly constructed so that in Act I the area behind the orchestra represents Dr Bartolo’s house and the area in front the streets of Seville. Instead of Rosina appearing on a balcony she inhabits the house’s courtyard, the frontiers of which are clearly marked by a wall and plants. This means that the notion of her being caged is as strong as ever, but also that the same area, which contains a sun lounger and patio chairs, works for when the action moves inside Bartolo’s house. 

Gates at the top of the two gangways complete the separation of house and city, yet the production does allow for a high degree of fluidity. For example, by having Rosina bribe Berta to leave the house temporarily, she can sing the second half of ‘Una voce poco fa’ on the streets of Seville. This aids the energy as she gets rather taken watching a man cooling himself by the fountain, and furthers the plot as we see her buy a postcard that becomes the material on which she subsequently writes the note to Almaviva.

In a programme note, Dr Claire Lozier argues that the story’s ‘madness is contagious and infects everyone in a joyous collective hysteria’. That feels especially true in this production, which is dynamic from the outset (the movement director is Bence Kalo) and seldom goes off the boil. The start of the Overture jolts Berta, who has been resting in a café, out of her slumber, and then sees all of the characters go about their business in Seville. It even shows Don Basilio rising out a fountain in which he has clearly collapsed drunk!

“…this new production… paints the most vivid picture of a sun baked Seville”

The Barber of Seville

Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Paul Grant & Heather Lowe (Photo: Ali Wright)

A further dimension is introduced by making Dr Bartolo English, thus emphasising how he is an outsider who is out of step with others, even as he believes in his own superiority. This ties in completely with his character, because he thinks Rosina should love him for his status and intellect, when to her he is just an ageing man. With his persuasive baritone, Stephen Gadd certainly emphasises Bartolo’s mortality. When the character asserts and exerts himself in ‘A un dottor della mia sorte’ he completely tires himself out, and the manner in which he reads a book as he ignores Rosina’s singing in her lesson seems highly realistic. There are plenty of amusing moments including an ’Allo ’Allo! style joke where he gives the impression of addressing Berta in Spanish only with a strong English accent, while in reality singing the recitative in the original Italian! Overall, however, Gadd ensures that the humour derives from the pathos in his character, even more so than in most portrayals of Dr Bartolo.

Charlotte Corderoy elicits a notably balanced sound from the City of London Sinfonia as she achieves an excellent combination of warmth, bubbly charm, cleanness and precision. As Almaviva, Elgan Llŷr Thomas reveals a beautifully expansive tenor, while suggesting that the Count’s status has an enormous impact on how much he plays the roles he adopts. For example, he thinks nothing of acting so drunkenly in someone else’s house because its owner is only someone to be looked down on. ‘Contro un Cor’ is especially amusing as Thomas temporarily takes over the conducting from Corderoy! She has to step in quickly again though when his gestures become too flamboyant, in keeping with his character’s tendency to go to excess.

Heather Lowe is an outstanding Rosina who, alongside delivering some thrilling coloratura, reveals some astutely observed gestures that mark her character out as highly intelligent and talented. With his strong and assertive baritone, Paul Grant is a suitably blustery Figaro who takes the stage by storm in ‘Largo al factotum’ as he attempts to cut the hair of an audience member and even the conductor! With his deep bass, Jihoon Kim is a suitably sinister Don Basilio, whose ‘La calunnia è un venticello’ is paradoxically made all the more menacing by being delivered in such a gentlemanly manner over tea and sandwiches. With both her skill and experience in the role, Janis Kelly is luxury casting as Berta. Although the part is not big, she more than justifies the directorial decision to keep her on stage as much as possible through her brilliant reactions to everything that goes on around. ‘Il vecchiotto cerca moglie’ is presented slightly differently to usual in suggesting that the maid has her own future to look forward to.

For Act II the set up is reversed, so that the interior of Dr Bartolo’s house is shown in front of the orchestra with the street behind. The cleverness lies in the fact that this change only requires a few props to be moved. The gates that mark the boundary between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ stay exactly where they are, with people simply going through them the other way to enter the house. With the vast majority of the action being so close to the audience the dynamism that is such a feature of Act I is raised to another level again. Nevertheless, the comedy is always tempered with something much sadder and deeper. After Figaro breaks many of Bartolo’s possessions in the cupboard, the Doctor comes on clutching one of the broken pots. It clearly meant a lot to him, and it represents the way in which he is being broken as a man. It is subsequently restored by Berta, but even this suggests that ‘new life’ is for others, rather than Dr Bartolo, to enjoy. 

• The performance on 14 June is a Young Artists Performance featuring a different cast and conductor (Anna Castro Grinstein).

• The 14.00 performance on 16 June is a Discovery Matinee, Audio Described and Relaxed Performance. 

• Opera Holland Park’s 2024 season continues until 10 August. For details of all events and tickets visit its website.

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