By Henry Shaw
As their final offering for 2019, Victorian Opera has put together a semi-staged production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville for their loyal attendees and opera aficionados alike. The high quality of singing performances across the board is unlike any you’ve seen and if you’re interested in hearing Rossini done perfectly, you can’t go wrong.
Overtures normally don’t get any sort of mention in a review, but this one has to. The Barber of Seville overture slaps (hard) and is an absolute banger. Putting all his expertise and knowledge at the forefront, Richard Mills highlights the excitement and energy of the opera and delivers the first spectacular moment of the night. The rapturous applause from the audience once the overture was finished set us up for a night of fantastic music; and we were not disappointed.
Clearly, each of the singers have been worked hard by Mills, exerting a lot of effort to craft their individual performances and it shows. Brenton Spiteri is a wonderful leading man as Count Almaviva. His runs are clear and clean and his top register effortless, the technical proficiency of his performance is astounding. I particularly liked his singing of ‘Se il mio nome saper voi bramate’ when accompanied by Jose Carbó on guitar, the relaxed and beautiful interplay between the two created a feeling of two friends just enjoying performing together. Speaking of Jose Carbó, this was really a night all about him. His ‘largo al factotum’ was exceptional and hit every beat it needed to, charismatic, vibrant and sung perfectly. The playful energy of the music was complimented by Carbó’s performance, cheeky and frenetic whilst maintaining control over the situation at all times. The entire opera’s success relies on Figaro as it’s backbone and Carbó is as strong as they come, never faltering in his performance and keeping the action moving. Rounding out the trio of leads is Chiara Amarù as Rosina. Amarù is a new face to VO, but quickly asserts herself as a vocal powerhouse on the stage. Similar to Spiteri, her runs are marvellous and Amarù deftly manages with the score taking her through the full scope of her range. Her lower register often sounded quite dark, but the quality of her voice overall was exceptional. As the core of this production, the three leads perform exceptionally and are the real draw for this opera.
Alongside the trio of youthful and lively protagonists are the curmudgeonly, old and lecherous duo of Doctor Bartolo and Don Basilio, portrayed by Warwick Fyfe and Paolo Pecchioli, respectively. Fyfe brilliantly sings ‘A un dottor della mia sorte’ flexing his status as one of Australia’s finest baritones, even while singing at breakneck speeds, his diction and annunciation doesn’t falter. Pecchioli’s rich bass fills out the lower portion of the harmonies and it underpins the full cast choruses. Pecchioli revels in his performance of ‘la calunnia ē un venticello’ as he pulls out all stops and almost convinces the audience that committing crimes is good. Almost. The final two main cast members are the servants of the house, Berta and Ambrogio, portrayed by Kathryn Radcliffe and Stephen Marsh. Despite not having an integral role in the story, Radcliffe plays up the little time she does have onstage and shows off her impressive top notes in Berta’s aria. As one of only two females onstage, Radcliffe does an impressive job of standing out and making her performance very memorable. Marsh plays several roles throughout the opera, opening the show with Fiorello before transitioning into the much put upon Ambrogio. His singing is fantastic as always, although without much time to establish himself before disappearing it’s hard to make an impact. As a featured role, he works very well alongside his stellar castmates. The chorus is filled out by a troupe of males that perform enthusiastically, adding their strong vocals in support of the leads.
As a concert, the production was flawless. Each cast member highlighted why they were there and why they deserve such accolades; no one was a weak link in the larger chorus numbers and it is clear that Mills has once again cultivated the best performances out of his entire cast. If you’re wanting to hear the Barber of Seville in concert then you shouldn’t miss this one. However, this production was not billed as a concert, but as a semi-staged concert and thus included a lot of elements on top of these exquisite vocals. If you’re in the market for a more rounded night of entertainment then this may not be the perfect show.
The promotional material for this production lauds it as “the funniest night you can have at the opera” and promises “huge laughs” and a “timeless work of comic genius”. Comedy, at the best of times, is difficult and always changing, but it is especially difficult to present a comedy from 1816 based on a play from 1775 and expect it to hold up to a modern audience. The work itself has a comedic framework for Italy in 1816, but that framework is very tired by 2019. A wealthy man tricks a woman into falling in love with him by paying another man to impersonate him. A cynical interpretation perhaps, but even with that outdated premise there could be room for a modern comedic take. The opera was seen as progressive in it’s time for exalting the idea of marriage for love, so there may be some comedy to be found in applying that lens to a modern audience. Unfortunately, there are no jokes in this opera about this premise. That’s fine, perhaps the huge laughs can come from the juxtaposition between the ridiculousness of the plot and the characters taking it very seriously. That is also not the case, the actors seem to be having fun, but often find their actions far funnier than the audience does. Without anything clever to say or an interesting way of performing, it seems the actors have been left to rely on pulling funny faces, making silly noises and generally pandering to the crowd for laughs. The first real laugh was at one character hitting another on the bottom. Another laugh was one character calling another the wrong name. There were general chuckles throughout the first act, but very few moments that could be considered “jokes”. There were no real set ups or punch lines and any humour was derived from mugging and pratfalls, so the whole production felt like it was right out of 1816. For every joke that got a laugh, there were several that didn’t and if a joke did get a laugh it would invariably be repeated moments later. It seemed that the production team wasn’t really aware of what was funny or how to make the content they did have funny, so were overly reliant on the cast to make the broadest comedy possible. Spiteri and Carbó both were able to make this work for the most part, with the majority of amusing moments stemming from their natural comic timing and ease on the stage. Spiteri’s turn as an enthusiastic priest showed off his flexibility and character work and Carbó was incredibly comfortable and in his element, causing havoc everywhere he went and even going so far as to lop off repetiteur Phoebe Briggs’ ponytail. These two managed to keep their heads above water, but the rest of the cast tended to flounder as gags failed, becoming more desperate for laughs that only occasionally came. A timeless work of comic genius this was not, more akin to a group of talented friends putting on an awkward revue where the comedy comes from watching your associates embarrass themselves. Everyone has fun, but it’s not clever or sophisticated and more than a little patronising.
For me, the staging of the piece really let it down. If you separate the singing from the staging, this is an easy recommend. Go see it, because these performers are top of their field. If you’re hoping for any sort of interesting theatre and memorable comedy you might be sorely disappointed. There are a few chuckles to be had, but the humour is very childish and broad without any real effort put into developing their ideas. I was impressed, but unamused and left the theatre a bit deflated.
Images: Nick Hanson