Barber of Seville, WNO
Elizabeth Davis takes a look at Welsh National Opera's production of Rossini's comic opera
In Giles Havergal’s vintage production of The Barber of Seville for Welsh National Opera one of the characters is given the line ‘If something is too stupid to be spoken you can always sing it.’ That certainly feels true of Rossini’s deliciously silly comic opera.
The production currently touring, conducted by Simon Phillippo (and earlier in the tour by Alexander Polianichko), was first seen in 1986 and is showing its age. The set is a stage-within-a-stage and the production revels in theatrical convention – there is an on-stage audience who congratulate the principal singers after each aria and the singers freeze in pantomime ‘attitudes’ at the end of the scenes.
Figaro, the irresistible egotist, is sung by South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo and he makes the most of his role as puppet-master, stage manager and prototype concierge. He holds the audience’s attention effortlessly and seems to have a healthy sense of the absurd. Christine Rice as the opera’s heroine Rosina is feisty and stubborn: even the tricky coloratura in the famous aria ‘Una voce poco fa’ is easily tamed. The best moments of the evening are when Rice and Imbrailo share the stage – during the music lesson, for example, in which Count Almaviva, sung by Andrew Kennedy, surreptitiously woos Rosina with Figaro's help.
The evening is full of visual gags – a ladder scene which channels Laurel & Hardy, for example – but they all feel like they’ve been played hundreds of times before, with dozens of different singers. The jokes have lost their freshness: you watch them as if through frosted glass. This isn’t helped by a clunky translation, by Robert David MacDonald. Take, for instance, the moment that Figaro says he has a ‘painful foreign body’ in his eye – absurd English, frankly, and also awkward to sing.
A vibrant, witty finale means much is forgiven and the audience goes away happily humming, but this is a production which is otherwise sagging with age.
Elizabeth Davis is the editorial assistant of BBC Music Magazine