There is a great deal to recommend in Melbourne Opera’s second production for the year, The Barber of Seville, especially the quality of the singing and acting.
Some purists might be offended by the plethora of comic inclusions, joining forces with Robert Lawrence, who in his introductory essay to a Schirmer edition of the opera decried a tendency to turn Rossini’s elegant score “into a cheap ‘gag’ show, with exaggerated comic routines and outlandish costumes”.
While there is something to be said for this point of view, the verve with which the cast threw themselves into their parts and the skill with which they performed made for such an entertaining experience that protest seems a little carping. Despite the “Spicks and Specks” moments, with its (mainly harpsichord) insertions of tiny snatches of music ranging from Mozart’s Soave sia il vento to Hey Big Spender and even the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth at the word “deaf”, these were very much in passing and mainly served to add to the general hilarity. Any lapses of taste were well and truly outweighed by the strengths of Hugh Halliday’s inventive direction.
One aspect of this production that was indisputably in line with Rossini’s intentions was among its highlights: Sally-Anne Russell’s Rosina. The role was written for a mezzo-soprano and she has the range and flexibility to do justice to the role vocally. A full, warm tone throughout from bottom to top and neatly executed coloratura passages were invested with a musical ease and lightness of touch essential to the character. Her vivacity and wicked sense of humour also had the power to delight and charm the audience as well as her suitors.
In the title role, Phillip Calcagno demonstrated his experience as Seville’s barber and general factotum with an assured performance. Not quite as “unbuttoned” as some Figaros, he gave a lively and vocally secure performance that was a constant pleasure.
For diplomatic reasons, Rossini originally gave his work the title Almaviva. Brenton Spiteri’s virtuoso performance could well have justified its use in this production. The wide range and demanding coloratura have posed a challenge for many tenors, with the top notes proving particularly problematic. Spiteri negotiated the lengthy florid passages with remarkable ease and relished the high notes. His acting displayed a flair for comedy as he threw caution to the wind and reveled in the more surreal comic moments. His Don Alonso aesthete, complete with an alarmingly wielded lily, may not have been quite in tune with the libretto but was brought off with considerable panache. Immaculate diction is one of Spiteri’s hallmarks and certainly contributed to the entertainment value.
Too often the opera-goer yearns for surtitles when a work is being sung in English because of the effort required to understand the words. Although the original Italian is easier to sing and more euphonious to hear, all singers in this production enunciated so clearly that very little was lost, even in the patter songs.
Roger Howell was terrific as Dr. Bartolo. His smooth, gathered tone was always firm and very well projected and his acting convincing. His falsetto aria added a further amusing dimension to his characterization.
Although David Gould has a fine bass voice, it was sometimes over-shadowed by the extraordinary amount of comic business brought to the role of Rosina’s music master, Don Basilio. Much of it was due to ingenious direction on the part of Hugh Halliday, but Gould’s timing and use of body language resulted in a performance that was truly memorable.
Jodie Debono as Berta managed her “big reveal” aria to startling effect and made an admirable contribution to the big ensembles at the end of the two halves of the performance. Michael Lampard, Richard Wilson and Nicholas Webb performed their minor roles creditably as did the eight-strong male chorus.
Some untidiness in the string playing and an occasional strangely slow and plodding tempo made parts of the Overture lose its fizz, but the orchestra delivered nimble and spirited playing on the whole under Greg Hocking’s baton. Notwithstanding an occasional lack of agreement in tempi between some of the singers and the orchestra, the ensembles were tight and very well coordinated.
Whatever reservations one might have about some of the broader comedy, there is no denying that Melbourne Opera’s latest offering is true to Rossini’s opera buffa spirit in bringing a great deal of joy to its audiences.
Coming between the darker, more serious Der Freischutz and Maria Stuarda, The Barber of Seville affords a welcome contrast in a season of nicely balanced blend of popular and seldom performed operas for Melbourne audiences. Thoughtful programming, accomplished singing, imaginative direction and sets that are stylish and functional make Melbourne Opera performances rewarding experiences.
Review of performance at Athenaeum Theatre, June 25.
Sally-Anne Russell as Rosina and Phillip Calcagno as Figaro: Picture by Robin Halls
This season runs until July 10.