Review: Il Barbiere di Siviglia @ St. Peter’s College

Novel in its usage of the commedia dell’arte staging, recently formed company Opera Lyrica’s take on Il Barbiere di Siviglia was one which would have pleased Rossini with its concept. By adapting the various figures in a commedia dell’arte to the characters of Il Barbiere, Figaro became an arlecchino (harlequin), Rosina and Almaviva the unhappy lovers, and Dottore Bartolo the Pantalone – a miserly merchant. It was an idea that was laid onto the opera by director Paola Cuffolo, contrasting in a wholesome, traditional manner with the goofy, often cartoon-like modern stagings of the opera, where (at least in the most recent Royal Opera production), there is no notion of time or space – only action.

Opera Lyrica’s production on the contrary seized Rossini’s opera and set it pretty much according to his wishes. Il Barbiere di Siviglia is a comic opera buffa whose characters don’t possess a great deal of psychological or intellectual depth; the music is beautifully constructed and its array of arias sublime, but it was intended wholly to be an opera more about caricatures than representations of real human beings. This was a notion that was very well captured by the costumes we saw in the piece; a lot of red velvet that marked the period, Figaro’s clown outfit and pin-on nose, the wig and brown ribbon that rested on the head of Almaviva, and the stick with which the miser Dottore Bartolo presumably futilely threatens Rosina his ward. From there stemmed a lot of vivacious movement and comic effects, notably Almaviva’s disguise as a nun in Act II, where he arrives at Dottore Bartolo’s house and feigns a wish of “Gioia è pace per mill’anni” (‘A thousand years of joy and peace’) to him.

A great deal of the singing was carefully guided and technically accurate, although occasionally the more than challenging coloratura called for vocal phrases left hanging without a conclusion or sometimes with an excessive vibrato on top. Jorge Franco Bajo in the role of Almaviva possessed a luscious tenor voice with a pleasant vibrato effect, but his breath control often didn’t manage to sustain the ends of phrases, allowing the dynamics and strength of the last notes to come toppling down. Although some potent singing came from Colette Lam as Rosina, many of her movements off stage were not free or loose, and often she appeared more concerned for the correctness of her singing – which for the most part was managed technically well – than for the blossoming of her cunning character. The production’s Figaro, Alexandru Nagy, possessed a booming, huge bass which unfortunately lacked a great amount of vocal mastery. While it made sense to see him tottering around on stage, a trait which sometimes gave the impression that Figaro was drunk, his voice tottered a little too far, so that often what could have easily been round, well placed notes turned out to be flat, shaky, tremulous, wavering notes that criss-crossed the auditorium rather than filling it. The two vocal jewels of the evening were Bragi Jónsson as Don Basilio and Paloma Bruce as Berta. The former contained a great deal of force and warmth in his voice, which in addition to being potent in itself was also guided in the right direction by his careful and authoritative display of vocal technique. Paloma Bruce’s soprano was especially impressive in Berta’s aria, “Il vecchiotto cerca mogile”, which was sung not only with spontaneity and pizzazz on the young soprano’s part, but also with a wonderful spin on the piece’s coloratura and a beaming, shining, flexible instrument that gave the impression of having few technical limits.

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Overall this was an extremely well thought out production with lavishly handsome costumes designed and made by Elena Marteau and Kasia Katner; a concept that made more use of its limited financial endowments than many huge opera houses make of their large ones. It caught the spirit of Rossini’s opera not only in terms of its incidents and personages, but also in terms of its background and place in the development of opera as an art form.