A strong attention to detail makes for good quality fun.
Anna Morrissey’s production of The Barber of Seville for Nevill Holt Opera may be on a small scale, but it would be hard to picture it feeling any more fresh and dynamic. The level of visual interest is kept high throughout, and yet this rarely proves distracting because everything that is portrayed feels appropriate since it derives from a close study of what is actually in the opera.
Alex Berry’s set presents a set of pink curtains in front of which the first scene is played out. On occasions, these part a little to reveal the front door to Dr Bartolo’s house and its balcony above, and the fun tone is set from the start as Fiorello’s musicians seem to be a particularly motley crew. Sporting t-shirts that bear the word ‘Rosina’ in a heart (all the costumes are contemporary), they struggle even to hold their guitars the right way around and smuggle Count Almaviva into place by ‘rolling’ him on in a box.
‘Largo al factotum’ is rendered especially dynamically as two barber’s chairs are introduced that enable a range of customers to enter during the aria to have, for example, their hair cut or teeth pulled. Jokes are written in at every turn so that one ends up with longer (pink) hair than when he came in, but the hammed device of executing the change behind an opened newspaper is offset by the cleverness of its headline, which tells us that Count Almaviva is missing. If all of these distractions risk detracting from Michel de Souza’s actual delivery of the aria, they do help us to focus on the words as they are also used here to refer to men who come to Figaro to sort out their problems in the bedroom.
The curtains part to reveal the interior of Bartolo’s house, and a room lined with red silk halfway up the back wall. Rosina delivers the start of ‘Una voce poco fa’ from here before coming down to the main stage for ‘Io sono docile’, but she returns to this room on those occasions when she is most expected to comply with the stereotype of the subservient ward. The production consequently succeeds in its aim to highlight the gender inequalities of the age by showing how Rosina is ‘trapped, observed and prized like a trophy’. Sarah Champion, with her effective mezzo-soprano, captures Rosina’s spirit perfectly in the aria by walking like an automaton to show how she resents being caged, and then changing in an instant with a point of her finger to reveal her true, determined and independently minded self.
“…it would be hard to picture it feeling any more fresh and dynamic”
In the libretto, Bartolo complains that Figaro has made a hospital of his household with opium. In line with this, we actually see the factotum giving this to the servants Berta and Ambrogio (William Diggle), with the latter being handed a lot more to do than in most productions. He spends much of the time lying on the floor in a ‘drugged up’ stupor, and this leads to an hilarious moment when he does eventually rise, only for Figaro to chloroform him instantly to keep him out of the way once more. The Finale to Act I is also rendered extremely effectively as the amusingly dressed policemen gamble, raid Bartolo’s drinks cabinet and scribble ‘All you need is love’ on Ambrogio’s bare chest, thus ensuring that a suitably strong air of pandemonium prevails.
Liam Bonthrone as Almaviva reveals a pleasing tenor that possesses a degree of sensitivity, yet also proves robust enough to meet the challenging requirements of the role. The best Almavivas are those who, beneath the young, dashing exterior, hint at the brutishness that then comes to the fore in The Marriage of Figaro. Bonthrone suggests this by presenting a highly expectant character, who has no problem with behaving like a drunkard in another person’s house because he sees everyone else as insignificant and beneath him. This Almaviva is also not scared of throwing his money around. Many productions suggest he has patronised the musicians rather poorly, but here he gives them all a wad of notes, except for two who consequently look put out and try to raid his backpack. Similarly, when the Police Officer (William Kyle) arrests him, he does not reveal his rank by showing him the Order of the Grandees of Spain, but simply slips him a pile of money so that all of the cash that is thrown about contributes to the dynamism of the production.
Michel de Souza, with his excellent baritone, is a highly effective Figaro as he presents him as a slightly less blustery and rather more distinguished character than normal. Andri Björn Róbertsson has just the right level of creepiness as Don Basilio, and, with his firm and assertive bass-baritone, delivers his ode to calumny, during which newspaper headlines such as ‘Count Alma-Sleezer’ fall across the auditorium, extremely well. Of the main principals, however, the strongest performance comes from Grant Doyle, whose baritone is masterly and who cannot help but make us feel sorry for Dr Bartolo as all of his assertions on how he cannot be outwitted are proven wrong. Though she has a much smaller role, Janis Kelly’s class as Berta clearly shows. She has previously played the part for the Royal Opera and Glyndebourne, and it is nice to see her perform ‘Il vecchiotto cerca moglie’ quite differently to the way in which she did so for the latter. That version required quite a large and physical performance, but here she begins the aria seated with a cigarette, and uses it to show how she dotes on Dr Bartolo herself, thus setting up the ending for this production.
In the pit, the Royal Northern Sinfonia, under the baton of Dinis Sousa, applies a pleasing level of urgency and excitement to the score, while also delivering a slightly lighter sound than we might be used to hearing. This is consequently a production in which many things come together well, and in which the attention to detail is plain to see. This manifests itself right up to the moment when the person who is given a pink hairstyle during ‘Largo al factotum’ is then seen trying to protect it from the rain during Act II’s storm.
• Following its run at Nevill Holt Opera, there will be two performances of The Barber of Seville at The Sage, Gateshead on 2 and 3 July.
• NHO’s 2022 summer festival also includes a performance of Acis and Galatea by the Dunedin Consort on 8 July. For further details of all events and tickets visit the Nevill Holt Opera website.