sat 20/07/2024

The Barber of Seville, Longborough Festival | reviews, news & interviews

The Barber of Seville, Longborough Festival

The Barber of Seville, Longborough Festival

Sparkling Rossini reflects director's work ethic rather than concepts

Count Almaviva (Nicholas Sales) with serenaders Matthew Williams-Ellis

Speaking from the stage before curtain-up on The Barber, Longborough’s founder and chairman, Martin Graham, stressed the hard work put in by director Richard Studer and conductor Jonathan Lyness on their two 2014 productions, this one and Tosca. He wasn’t kidding. Read the programme and you find (for both operas): director, Richard Studer; designer, Richard Studer; costume, Richard Studer. Lyness conducting both works.

These are not jet-setting artists descending on Gloucestershire with their brainstorming concepts, but dedicated craftsmen doing their best for the works in hand. And it shows.

Studer’s Barber, sung in English (translator, Richard Studer), is a sparkling and elegant affair which recognises that Rossini’s comedy is a period piece that can’t usefully be relocated or updated. His one conceptual gesture is towards the commedia dell’arte that can well be argued to lie behind all buffo treatments of the subject of the elderly guardian plotting to marry his ward and being outwitted by a clever young rival. So his characters wear powder and rouge, and move, much of the time, in a stylised mecanico choreography that in fact reflects a strong strain of artifice in the music.

But the setting itself is naturalistic. Bartolo lives in style, a more-than-successful medico, evidently, amid Palladian columns and well-stacked library shelves. And his ward, Rosina, is not only liberated but deliciously well-dressed: kept in by her guardian but obviously not kept short. As for Almaviva, he may be posing as a poor student or a drunken soldier or a pious music teacher, but he is never really anything but the head-in-air aristo, quick to pull rank with the police, just a little slow with his largesse to his hired serenaders. All these nuances are in Rossini, by the way, and very much part of his wit. And was there ever a wittier score, one whose humour begins more plainly in the music?

Sherman, whatever may be in store for her, is indisputably the star of Bartolo’s drawing roomAs ever Studer and Lyness work well together. This is a staging that focuses on movement, occasionally perhaps to excess, but mostly with an ear to the Rossinian style, with its mobile rhythms and repeating mechanisms – a style that positively invites choreography. And the young cast play up to it brilliantly. Grant Doyle is an athletic, likeable Figaro, and a musicianly if not quite memorable baritone, very personable in his “Largo al factotum”, and an excellent guitar mimic in Almaviva’s serenade. Adrian Powter is a solid, not quite detestable Bartolo, at his best in the patter, at which he seems a complete master – no mean feat in English, much speedier than anything in Gilbert and Sullivan. Nicholas Sales’s nicely sung Almaviva is the more believable for being now and then repulsive, a quality that seems to appeal to Helen Sherman’s Rosina (pictured right with Grant Doyle); and, as Figaro hints in Studer’s text, we’ll find the sequel in Mozart.

Sherman, though, whatever may be in store for her, is indisputably the star of Bartolo’s drawing room. A proper mezzo, but with a seemingly effortless two-octave range, she uses every inch of her voice and her body to portray this adorable but alas easily misled beauty. Also, unlike many a mezzo, she joins up her registers; and she knows how to use her chest tones with a flicker of sensuality. This is in every way an outstanding performance, full of wit and bravura, compulsively watchable and listenable.

The support, too is, good. Julian Close is the usual loud-hailer of a bass Basilio, grand in sonority if not always clear in his words; and Constance Novis makes the most of Berta’s aria, commanding the stage and giving everyone else a breather. The orchestral playing under Lyness has a sparkle that was sometimes absent in Tosca; but then Rossini works better for a Longborough-sized orchestra than Puccini. The racket is joke-racket not post-Wagnerian thunder, and more gesture than decibels.

Was there ever a wittier score, one whose humour begins more plainly in the music?


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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