The Barber of Seville is the most popular opera buffa in the contemporary standard repertoire and, according to one estimate, the seventh most performed opera in the world. This is for good reason, because the work is a gem, and also one of the most accessible. However, opera buffa is only worth doing if it is genuinely hilarious, and this can only be achieved for a 21st century audience by making it fresh and energetic. Of course, Rossini’s music is always worth performing, but unless you can really make a costume production stimulating, you might as well do a concert version.
In Opera Australia’s current production, the story is moved from its usual setting on a Seville street to the lobby of a health resort in Catalonia, circa 1910. It’s a bit like the set of Fawlty Towers, except with sumptuous Gaudi-style decor, and with an octogenarian porter, two invalids, a general and his wife, and Salvador Dali (all non-singing) in place of Manuel, the Major, etc. The revolving barber shop is a stroke of genius — not just a great joke, but a plausible pretext for il Barbiere to hang around the hotel, and lurk in the background of scenes where his presence is otherwise hard to justify.
By contrast, Matthew Clayfield found the set, partly because of its colour scheme, more Little Mermaid than Sagrada Familia, and condemned it as impractical as well. But I think he’s way too harsh. It’s true that OA is patchy when it comes to comic opera, whether it’s Gilbert and Sullivan or something like this. Their directors often opt for slapstick and clowning when they should just play it straight and let the humour emerge on its merits from the situations and the dialogue. They also routinely botch up staging, with antics that take the focus off the central action, by wasting opportunities for dramatic entrances, and so on. But they’ve gotten it right on the whole with this one, and there are a few flashes of inspiration, such as Figaro’s first entrance on a bicycle.
Whatever one might think about the setting and staging, the singing in this production is absolutely wonderful. It needs to be, because this is magnificent music, with great arias and a few mesmerising ensemble pieces almost worthy of Mozart. Amelia Farrugia was terrific as Rosina, a role which only a really accomplished coloratura can do justice to. I don’t have the technical vocabulary, but the esteemed Mr Clayton uses formulations like
deceptively playful, her voice a taut, soprano sucker-punch. Puckish and innocent yet buxom and sexy, its the only performance in the whole production that really matches the music for sheer personality.. [her] voice, when it flies, soars. Her coloratura is pyrotechnic. When she sings the famous music lesson scene, as though popping corn on her upper-register, the hairs stand up on the back of your neck and you suspect that this is what opera really sounds like…
OK, so Mr Clayton is actually describing Emma Mathhews, who played Rosina earlier this year, but I think most of that applies to Farrugia — minus buxom, perhaps. Perhaps she was a bit tense and rushed her phrases slightly in Act I, but in the second act, she was at ease and having fun. Like the recently departed Beverly Sills here, singing the ‘music lesson aria’ from the same opera.
But it’s José Carbó in the title role who single-handedly makes this production. He has a powerful baritone voice, and good technical control, as far as my inexpert ear can judge; on top of that, he has charisma in spades, and a knack for hamming it up to just the right degree without going overboard into self-parody. He worked the same magic in The Marriage of Figaro earlier in the year. To give you the idea, here’s John Rawnsley performing the signature ‘Largo al Factotum’ with similar flair.
My only real gripe is the inclusion of miming musicians on the stage — especially the mixed ensemble and the lobby pianist at the beginning. Having someone play air piano on stage while there is sumptuous live string music rising from a near invisible orchestra pit, is horribly incongruous. In general it should be possible to have real musicians on stage, playing real instruments, as was done to brilliant effect in Giulio Cesare. If this is impossible, either because the principals can’t play the instruments or because it’s too tricky to get the real musicians on and off, then when absolutely necessary it should be feasible to create an illusion that an instrument is actually being played.
There are seven more performances in August in Sydney (there’s no information on the website about what happens after that). As it happens Pacific Opera is also performing Il Barbiere this months at two venues in Sydney, an experience I’m eagerly anticipating for comparison (and in any case my contract with Club Troppo stipulates at least three opera reviews per year).
For the undecided, or for those who prefer to take their opera in free video digests, I offer one more clip to convey the flavour — one of the truly great tenor-baritones duets, this time with Juan Diego and Pietro Spagnoli.