Sunday, February 14, 2016

Welcome to the marvellous mayhem in Opera Australia's The Barber of Seville in Sydney

The Bartolo residence in Opera Australia's The Barber of Seville
In Opera Australia's 21-year old and much revived production of Rossini's The Barber of Seville from director Elijah Moshinsky, the centrepiece is an intricate two-story cross-sectioned dwelling and its surgery, reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts Style. It's warm and inviting, sometimes dark and noisy, but very much eccentric - qualities that also saturate the work from start to finish in the hands of its distinctive characters and outstanding cast.

Inspired but not weighed down by the 1920s silent film era and early "talkies", it's plump with wonderful trickery, including a playful nod to the crowded cabin scene in the Marx Brothers movie A Night at the Opera (1935). Here in Moshinsky's version, law enforcers barge into the Bartolo home and end up crammed into its tiny surgery before spilling out into a heap. Welcome to the mayhem.

Rossini whipped up opera's most famous comedy in a matter of weeks for its premiere at Rome's Teatro Argentina in 1816. Moshinsky adds madcap antics and non-stop crisscrossing movement, making the work feel natural in this state of mayhem. Here, it centres on Dr Bartolo, not as a distinguished medical practitioner, but reimagined as a mad quack.

It's a production full of detail, excitement and action that at times flickers to achieve on stage what an old film reel reveals on screen. That the total effect is so successfully realised by an obviously well-rehearsed and quick-footed cast is a sign of the uncompromising demands of revival director Hugh Halliday.

Anna Dowsley as Rosina and Paolo Bordogna as Figaro
And what a treat to see an entire cast so at ease in their roles, so able to push the boundaries and sing with individuality and splendour in diction-sure Italian!

Paolo Bordogna is a performance enhancing drug as the to-be-richer-wanting Figaro, crafty and ever ready to help carry the plot forward for a price. Bordogna makes a grand entrance from a theatre side door and sings Figaro's incomparably popular aria, "Largo al factotum" (given its own fore-stage barber show in front of a barber-stripe drop), with all the exhilaration and power one could hope for. Doused with comedic prowess and agile in voice, Bordogna is an enigmatic performer and brings synergy of voice, expression and behaviour with ease to his Figaro.

Mezzo-soprano Anna Dowsley breeezes through her role debut as an unchained, lithe and lusciously voiced Rosina while effortlessly ploughing through her music with confidence and vitality. Smart and charming and in love with who she believes is the student Lindoro, but entrapped by Doctor Bartolo (her guardian/soon-to-become husband if the old fool has his way), Dowsley sings the text with emphatic beauty and gives endearing animated strength to her Rosina.

The dandyish Count Almaviva is performed with flair and warm vocal likability by American tenor Kenneth Tarver. Tarver comically navigates his disguise as the student Lindoro in the form of solider and music teacher to get into Bartolo's house to see Rosina, and listening to him do so is impressive to the ear. A fluid legato and gentle ornamentation lend a deep sincerity to his character and, apart from the top feeling it was on occasion reaching its limits, a well-supported and highly expressive voice is on display.

Samuel Dundas as Don Basilio and Warwick Fyfe as Doctor Bartolo
At home with comedic madness, Warwick Fyfe as Doctor Bartolo and David Parkin as his scheming accomplice Don Basilio are dastardly delightful, each showing off a rollicking good pitter-patter song paced with precision. Helping herself unseen to the gin, Jane Ede wafts about as Bartolo's nurse Berta and sings her with rich and firm appeal.

Samuel Dundas sports a fine dusky-toned bass as Almaviva's servant and bandmaster Fiorello, then reappears as Bartolos's zombie-like butler Ambrogio, then later as the wiry and cloaked Notary. And a regiment of uniformed law-enforcers are clumsily well-timed and in sound voice courtesy of the men of the Opera Australia Chorus, even when they fall in a heap.

Amongst the well-oiled slapstick shenanigans upstairs and down in the Bartolo household, conductor Andrea Molino brings the mastery of Rossini's melodious energy and allows it to penetrate and float in fabulous form. Only once did the pit outpace the voice, during Dr Bartolo's first lightning pitter-patter song. Maestro Molino mixed the tempi with enormous appeal and his soloists all obligingly shaped their vocal delivery to match. All the while, a unified Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra performed at their exquisite best.

Creative designs are as busy as the comings and goings. Michael Yeargan's set designs evoke Seville via the terrace houses of Sydney's Paddington and the palm trees of Los Angeles but it never feels that you're not in the libretto-described streets of Seville. Howard Harrison's lighting design is as lively as the action and parallels it wonderfully and Dona Granata's enhanced period costumes add to the vividness. The creative flair comes quick and introducing Doctor Bartolo and Rosina as minutely scaled mechanical figures well before we see them in the flesh gets some good hearty laughing going on early. And that's what the show is ultimately aiming for without ever compromising the music.

Opera Australia's The Barber of Seville has it all and gives it generously. With an equally radiant cast, it may very well do so for years to come.

Production photographs: Keith Saunders

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