Sports people often use the idiom “in the zone” when they perform at an elevated level of skill, focus and energy. Such could be said of the Victorian Opera’s cast at the opening night of Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville at the Melbourne Recital Centre.
This was a staged version of the much-loved opera buffa, first performed 203 years ago at the Teatro Argentina in Rome. It is arguably the greatest of comic operas but the audience at that first performance apparently didn’t think so, with much booing and hissing. Nonetheless, it soon became a favorite.
Barber is ostensibly about love, although greed, lust, avarice and abuse of power seem to play an equal role. The main players are Count Almaviva, who wants to marry Rosina, who is being jealously protected by her guardian Doctor Bartolo, who is also lusting after her. Fortuitously, the barber and general man-about-town Figaro, a regular employee of Dr. Bartolo, who also happens to also be a previous employee of the Count, offers to assist him in his endeavours, as long as he gets something out of it. The rest of the opera revolves around the many twists and turns in this romance, centring around Almaviva, Rosina, Bartolo, Figaro, Don Basilio (Rosina’s music teacher), the maid Berta, the Count’s servant Fiorello and a cast of itinerant minstrels and policemen.
And the music is, quite simply, beautiful.
To compensate for the absence of a set, which provides visual stimulus, performing a stage version of an opera requires exceptional acting skills. Backed by Orchestra Victoria under the direction of Richard Mills, the entire company produced a vibrant performance for the full two hours and twenty minutes.
The artists chosen for this production jelled beautifully. As Count Almaviva we had Brenton Spiteri, formerly a Young Artist at Opéra de Lyon, and now establishing a career at the highest level. In addition to a wonderful tenor voice he displays an engaging personality which enables him to play the Count with conviction.
Performing the role of Rosina was Italian mezzo-soprano Chiara Amarù, who has made this role something of a specialty, and it’s easy to see why. She brings the voice, the passion and the gravitas to give us a well-rounded and sympathetic Rosina. Her “Una voce poco fa” was exquisite.
One of Australia’s finest baritones, Warwick Fyfe, inhabits the role of the pompous Dr. Bartolo. Don Basilio has the role of assisting Count Alamaviva in thwarting Dr. Bartolo’s scheme, albeit for a substantial fee. Admirably performing this role was another Italian, Paolo Pecchioli, who has developed an international career, with more than 60 leading roles in major theatres around the world. His mellifluous bass voice filled the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. Melbourne
Soprano Kathryn Radcliffe, a former Sun Aria winner, was wonderful as Dr. Bartolo’s maid. And not forgetting Stephen Marsh’s engaging Fiorello, Almaviva’s manservant.
There is, of course, a gaping hole in that summation of the cast. Whilst first among equals, José Carbó’s performance as the suave Figaro was stunning. It was a towering performance, and it is easy to see why he is being hailed as one of the most exciting operatic artists of his generation. His command of the character was masterful. Carbó, an Argentinian-Australian, has performed in the leading opera houses of the world, and in 2015 joined the roster of principal artists at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, and last year toured Australia with superstar Sumi Jo. He is destined for even greater things.
The Barber of Seville is a very funny and popular opera, but it should not be considered lightweight. It’s worth quoting Richard Mills’ reflections on Rossini, writing in the concert programme: “Rather than subjective introspection, Rossini favours an objective application of his musical language in a vocal style formed from the classical ideals of bel canto: an instrumental perfection of the voice, absolute control of legato with the potential for achieved mobility with agile and focused ornamentation, plus the capacity to deliver text with clarity and imagination”. He goes on to say that the Baroque opera requires performers of the highest technical accomplishments. Mills himself is to be applauded for this production, not least for conducting the entire opera with his back to the singers.
Special moments of the night were José Carbó as Figaro switching to vernacular Australian, the entrance of the policemen doing a Gilbert and Sullivan cameo from Pirates of Penzance, and Brenton Spiteri’s “Pace e gioia sia con voi” disguised as a priest, looking for all the world like Peter Sellers.
It’s a pity this production had only two scheduled performances in Melbourne.
Photo credit: Nick Hanson
Cyril Jones reviewed Victorian Opera’s production of “The Barber of Seville” at Melbourne Recital Centre on December 12, 2019.