Barber still manages to cut it

The Barber of Seville

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

IT might look la little like Figaro and his ensemble have arrived Tardis like on the set of Oliver! But this WNO version of Rossini's romp is just that, a glorious farce, fun from beginning to end.

One of the marvels of opera is how a tale that can be summed up in a paragraph takes three enjoyable hours to tell.

Wealthy Rosina is in love with Count Almaviva and he loves, her but her guardian Dr Bartolo want to marry her himself; purely for her bulging dowry, so enter the local barber, Figaro, who uses cunning plans and disguises to bring about the matrimonial union of our young lovers and leave everyone, including the jilted doc, living happily ever after.

This particular production is 25 years old and has been dusted off for the tenth time which may be a little too often for WNO regulars hoping for a night at the theatre to escape repeats on the telly as it falls into the opera equivalent of Friends and Dads' Army. A second chance to see and all that.

But for newcomers it is a production which hardly shows its age. It is bright and quick paced, fresh and alive and the set, a sort of  four level Elizabethan tenament structure that could have been half-inched from The Globe, gives plenty of  scope for running up and down steps and dashing behind curtains.

The stage is set up in a town square, a play within a play scenario, with all the locals, who look for all the world like they have strayed in from a production of Oliver! or Christmas Carol next door, meandering around, drinking, sitting watching and at times joining in.

COLOUR AND COMEDY

Far from being a distraction they add to the colour and comedy of the piece.

Hovering around in the background though is a but, and in this case the but is the English translation by David Macdonald. which  is the weakest part of the whole production.

There are parts of the libretto written with a tin ear. Who, for example, has ever heard anyone say “I have a foreign body in my eye!”.  It is not only odd phrasing but some of the humour seems dated and some comic opportunities are lost altogether while often the words used makes the tongue twisting exchanges excruciatingly awkward. At times you feel the orcherstra, conducted with a light-hearted touch by Simon Phillippo, is having to drag its feet a little waiting for the singers to fight their way through Macdonald's translation  to join them.

It is not that English is unsuited to being sung at eight words to the bar, look at any Gilbert & Sullivan operetta where at least one number requires machine gun delivery, it is just that this English, or at least these words, have too many jagged edges and obstructions to flow as intended, like a fast running, babbling stream.

Still the cast have to play the cards they are dealt and South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo makes a splendid Figaro with a fine, powerful voice and a great sense of fun as the barber who is master of intrigue.

Christine Rice has a wonderful mezzo soprano voice and shines as the wealthy ward of Dr Bartolo but even she seemed to have to battle the words to get all the syllables in before the music got away.

FINE VOICES

Her scenes with Andrew Kennedy as Count Almaviva are highlights bringing together two fine voices with Kennedy's distinctive tenor. When Kennedy sings in English there is no need of surtitles even with the convoluted phrasing he was sometimes lumbered with.

Eric Roberts was ill and so William Robert Allenby stepped into the breech as Dr Bartolo and produced some splendid comic touches as the scheming old doctor out to get his hands on Rosina, driven by the promise of loot rather than any thoughts of lust. His normally fine baritone voice was lost in the background at times though, perhaps the occupational hazard of a late replacement, but in general he did the part proud.

His friend, singing teacher Basilio,  keeping up appearances  as a society dignitary, all wigs and white lead face, showed unswerving loyalty . . . . to the highest bidder and was a foppish delight in the more than capable hands of Clive Bayley who has a bass voice of remarkably rich resonance which flows like melted dark chocolate.

A little star though was Megan Llewellyn Dorke as Bartolo's housekeeper Berta who puts some real wellie into her second act aria Il vecchiotto cerca moglie which she sings powerfully and quite beautifully.

It is a production laced with nice touches and some comic gems but perhaps it is time to either go back to the Italian or to find an English translation that flows rather than clanks along bouncing off the sides. The barber shaves again on 19-11-11.

Roger Clarke 

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