TAPAS DON’T PREACH
Wednesday, May 16 2012
Opera Australia resurrects Elijah Moshinsky’s 1995 production of The Barber of Seville, and it returns in all its gleaming triumph to the Melbourne stage.
Barber might well be the quintessential opera buffa; it is a masterpiece, with Rossini’s gorgeous music framing the lunacy of a clumsy courtship. The opera is taken from Le Barbier de Séville, the first in Beaumarchais’ trilogy—the second became Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro—and the story is delightfully stupid.
Count Almaviva falls for Rosina—though he’s never met her, and organises a serenade outside her Andalucian manse, which flops. He enlists the raffish barber Figaro, who, like any old whore, agrees to help the Count win Rosina’s heart for a fee. Rosina is the ward of Doctor Bartolo, who plots to marry her. Almava enters the house in a variety of disguises, letters are exchanged, there are a number of misunderstandings, and all comes out right in the end.
Revival Director Roger Press has been uxoriously faithful to Moshinsky Yeargen’s 1920’s production design, and it’s to his credit: in the first scene of Act I, the grand Seville boulevard is depicted in miniature form, with Rosina and Bartolo entering and exiting as puppets.The centerpiece of the set, where all the principal action takes place, is the Bartolo house interior, and it’s a real gem. Two stories and six or seven subdivided rooms, including Rosina’s bedroom and Bartolo’s medical studio, decorated with William Morris wallpaper and rich furnishings, this set is incredibly pretty, with all the beauty of a nineteenth century music box.
As Figaro, Jose Carbo—an old hand at the role—is styled to look like Jean Jardin from The Artist; he sports a slick moustache and wolfish grin, and sings adequately. His Figaro is hucksterish, an eminently likeable sleazeball, and it’s loads of fun to watch his machinations unfold.John Longmuir’s Count Almaviva looks drab and colourless beside such a cad. Longmuir is not a strong actor, and his disguises—a drunken soldier, a frisky singing teacher—are pathetic. But he sings in a bright tenor that rings out as clear as a bell. He’s no match for the spirited Rosina (Sian Pendry); the part is often transposed up to make it into a soprano showcase, but Pendry sings it in the original key in a beautifully expressive mezzo-soprano.
It’s hard not to pity poor Andrew Moran, the young bass playing the old Doctor, singing under a mound of makeup and prosthetics. He’s not quite lecherous enough for Bartolo, and he looks completely wrong. Better are his two servants: Teresa La Roca as Berta, the housekeeper, who looks perpetually flustered and sings the lovely “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie”, and Samuel Dundas, in the non-singing role of Ambrogio. Dundas slouches on and his, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, his eyes blackened with makeup, dolefully uninterested in all the mania around him. He’s a joy.
And what about the music? The music! It’s glorious, thrillingly conducted by Andrea Licata, surely amongst Rossini’s best. The overture, forever connected in this writer’s mind with the Bugs Bunny cartoon The Rabbit of Seville, is famously whimsical; there’s surely no better way to begin an opera.
The surprise came near the end. Before Count Almaviva reveals his true identity to Rosina in Act II, the curtain fell abruptly, and, after some moments, Roger Press (the revival director) entered, embarrassed. Sian Pendry (Rosina), who was herself a last minute replacement when the former leading lady underwent a knee reconstruction, had been suddenly and violently taken ill. Cue frenzied whispers and coos of sympathy; the curse had struck again.
Much rumour and confabulation surrounded the disastrous opening night of The Barber of Seville, which premiered in 1816 at the Teatro Argentina in Rome. Basilio tripped and broke his nose; a cat wandered onto stage and meowled pitifully; the Count’s guitar in the serenade was mistuned to that of the orchestra; the audience finally drowned out the music in catcall sand whistles.
OA’s crowd might be considerably better behaved than the hot-blooded Italians of centuries past, but like that original production, the night never recovered. Pendry returned, pale and diminished, and the performers continued gamely on. But it was too late—the delicate balancing act had faltered, and like a slowly deflating balloon the show limped to a close.
Opera Australia’s The Barber of Séville plays at the State Theatre until 17 May.