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Il Barbiere di Siviglia

12 June 2018

On the Cutting Edge

Il Barbiere di Siviglia

by Gioachino Rossini, libretto by Cesare Sterbini

The Grange Festival, The Grange, Northington until 30th June

A review by Mark Aspen

Moustaches, moustaches everywhere! Go to The Grange and you will see medium-sized moustaches on the ground-rows that hide the footlights, large moustaches on the candelabra, an enormous moustache-shaped hedge, and even a titanic moustache of woven willow bedecking the staid façade of The Grange itself! We are prepared; we know that we are in for some moustachioed merriment. Even the most sober-sided opera-lover would not fail to enjoy the playfulness of The Grange Festival’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

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Certainly they didn’t come more sober-sided than Ludwig van Beethoven. Gioachino Rossini rather held Beethoven in awe, and had tried for years to meet him. Eventually, in 1822 in Vienna, the thirty-old Rossini manged, through the intervention of a librettist, to secure an interview with the great man, who was already ailing. Much to Rossini’s delight, Beethoven knew about his work, but added that Rossini “should never try to write anything other than opera buffa ” (although Rossini had written quite a few opera seria). Then it is said that Beethoven laughed and called out “above all, make lots and lots of barbers!” So, no doubt even LvB would be enjoying himself at The Grange if he were still around.
Il Barbiere di Siviglia had been premiered in Rome six years before Rossini’s Vienna meeting, but had been sabotaged by a rival. Its British premiere was in March 1818 and The Grange Festival production celebrates this bicentenary with a projected strapline, “The Barber of Seville in Britain 1818 to 2018”.
The concept of the two-hundred year time span is carried across into the Andrew D Edwards’ design. The costume designs range across these years. Count Almaviva wears 21st Century tee-shirt and jeans, a mid-20th Century soldier’s uniform, then an Edwardian teacher’s sports jacket and is finally revealed in all his glory in Regency costume. When the curtain opens we see front of Doctor Bartolo’s house fashioned as a giant bust of Rossini, an inspired homage to the composer. This house in an eye-opener in more than one sense for, when there is a knock on the door, then to the delight of the audience, Rossini’s eyes open as the round windows to Rosina’s bedroom. Moreover, the house is mounted on the revolve and when it turns to show the interior, we see Bartolo’s study at ground floor. Upstairs is an exuberant Rocco chamber for Rosina, in the form of a golden circular pergola complete with swinging perch. She’s only a bird in a gilded cage : the analogy hits one, well … in the eye.

Barber 5

Another fine tribute to Rossini comes from Conductor David Parry who takes the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on a scintillating journey that has the dynamism of a piece that reputedly Rossini wrote in thirteen days. Right from the exciting start to the overture, the full colour and energy of Il Barbiere di Siviglia leaps out. Parry himself gets swept up in the integrated inclusiveness of the production (as indeed does a somewhat bemused member of the audience).
The plot to Il Barbiere di Siviglia , which is based on Beaumarchais’ Le Barbier de Séville, is very simple: beautiful young lady is captive to a jealous guardian; handsome young man comes along; they fall in love; he rescues her against all the odds. It is a plot that forms the basis of many an opera buffa. However, Rossini strips out all the melancholic undertones of the Beaumarchais, unlike Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro from the same source, to leave a pure comedy. That is where Il Barbiere wins: it is a simple romp, and director Stephen Barlow has run generously with this idea.
The handsome young man is Lindoro “an impoverished student”, but we know that really he is Count Almaviva in disguise (the Count is good at this). His dawn serenade beneath the window of the beautiful young lady, Rosina, planned with his servant Fiorello, goes awry when they overpay the musician-singers to keep quiet (musicians, overpaid – and quiet!). All of Almaviva’s ploys go wrong, the source of much of the opera’s comedy, for Rosina’s guardian, Dr Bartolo, is cleverer than they think, and himself has designs on Rosina … and on her forthcoming inheritance.

To the rescue comes Figaro, itinerant barber, apothecary, broker and general fixer, with a mind even sharper than his razor. He bursts onto the scene introducing himself with largo al factotum (let’s translate it as “make way for Mr Fixit”), the instantly recognisable patter aria in which his none-too-modest description of his services energetically tumbles out. Anglo-French baritone Charles Rice seizes the role of Figaro with great gusto, clearly relishing the rumbustiousness of it all. Figaro will help Almaviva win Rosina for dunque oro a discrezione (just a reasonable amount of gold), although we suspect that he also enjoys the sheer mischievousness of it all.

Figaro’s counterpart in the thrust and parry is Dr Bartolo, a man of some standing in society, but greedy and lascivious (Figaro has a whole list of adjectives to describe him), and content to deal a few cards from the back of the pack. Riccardo Novaro, an Italian baritone with an experienced Rossini repertoire, plays a dour and distrustful Bartolo, musically crisp and with the same skill in the patter athleticism as Figaro. His collaborator is Rosina’s music teacher, Don Basilio, played by the rich-voiced bass David Soar, quite willing to descend the depths in support of his paymaster, Bartolo (although not un-bribable, for every man has his price). Basilio suggests that la calunnia è un venticello (slander is a little breeze) that grows and grows, until it becomes un’esplosione, come un colpo di cannone, un tremuoto (an explosion like the clap of cannon, an earthquake): another tongue-twisting musical marathon. So he spreads fake news (oh, we are bang up-to-date) which is picked up by the chorus on their mobile devices.

In this Barbiere di Siviglia we have lots of wicked anachronisms, including vacuum cleaners, wheelie-shoppers, cigarettes and vapes, and it is another way that the production scores, with unashamed self-deprecating humour. Rossini would have loved this self-deprecation, as at the end of the first act, he was quite happy to say that his own music, fa con barbara armonia mure e volte rimbombar (makes the walls shake once more with its barbaric harmony).

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However, the music is not all proto-G&S patter songs and knock-about humour, as we mustn’t forget that the plot revolves around a pair of desperate lovers. Hence, there are many beautifully lyrical moments. Mezzo Josè Maria Lo Monaco makes her UK debut as Rosina, delivering una voce poco fa (a voice I heard a little while ago), Rosina’s euphoric cavatina that opens the second scene, with a musical clarity that is a joy to listen to. In this short arietta Lo Monaco conveys a feeling of blissful coyness that evolves rapidly into bold decisiveness, for her character is a spirited young lady who knows her own mind. Her sparky nature is unlined at the beginning of the second half, when we see Rosina in a bubble-bath á la Marilyn Monroe, and is indisputable when we later see her lying in wait with a shotgun when she has a brief crisis of faith in her beloved’s intentions!

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Fortunately, Almaviva is equally resolute and his resilience stands him in good stead as each of his plans comes to naught. So “Lindoro” the student changes disguise, in order to gain access to Batolo’s house and to Rosina. He becomes next a soldier, who is ubbriaco (“well-oiled”); and then a music teacher, a locum for Don Basilio. American tenor John Irvin, who plays Almaviva, is also accomplished as a pianist, and the “music teacher” is able, alongside the orchestra, to accompany himself and Rosina on-stage on an upright piano. His vocal attack portrays the resilient Almaviva with great verve.


Almaviva’s various guises come with their own supporting team, in the form of The Grange Festival Chorus, twelve strong, and highly versatile, together with Figaro and Fiorello (sturdy and well-structured baritone support from Toby Girling). So Fiorello’s dozen musicians support Lindoro, Figaro has his band of hairdressing assistants, and twelve Seville policemen come to arrest the soldatto ubbriaco. The chorus (under Chorus Master Tom Primrose) clearly savour these (heavily moustachioed) roles, which are enhanced by some fairly elaborated dance routines, choreographed by Mitchell Harper.
Meanwhile, Welsh soprano Jennifer Rhys-Davies gleefully depicts Bartolo’s much put-upon maid Berta, a lady-of-certain-age, resigned to her drudgery when not indulging in romantic and erotic fantasising about young men. Her description of the madness of love as una smania, un pizzicore, un solletico, un tormento (a mania, an itch, a tickle, a torment) has the audience in stitches.

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Their laughter is however soon drowned by lighting designer Howard Hudson’s very convincing thunderstorm, which brings the action to its climax. (Hudson designed the lighting for The Grange Festival’s acclaimed Mansfield Park last season.) Figaro’s plans for the pair to elope are frustrated by shenanigans with ladders, and more so by the pair’s reluctance to curtail their canoodling. But this is not a tragedy, as you may have gathered, so all works out well in the end.

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The Grange Festival’s imaginative production is musically alive, with acrobatic singing and great comic timing. In its witty setting, the cast are clearly enjoying their roles, and that enjoyment is infectious. Stephen Barlow has created a rollicking fun production, enjoyed by cast and audience in equal measure. There have been some brilliant productions of Il Barbiere di Siviglia , but this one beats them all … by a whisker!

Mark Aspen
June 2018

Photography by Simon Annand

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From → Opera, Reviews

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