Scottish Opera's Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) by Rossini is the best production I have seen this year. From the famous overture to the emancipation of love at the close, the company displayed an abundance of musicality, comedy and flair in the setting of Seville in Southern Spain.
No doubt the director Sir Thomas Allen was a central asset in the success of this production, propelling this talented company to reach the limits of their potential. The staging, costumes and comic timing of Rossini's most performed opera (standing apart from his other thirty-eight operas) were all stylishly presented.
The opening scene brilliantly captured the essence of Rossini's setting of 1816 Spain as well as establishing the comic tone for the rest of the opera. During the overture, members from all walks of Seville society were light-heartedly introduced to the scene including two painters having a cup of tea on an enormous ladder, a wind band with painted faces and a man on stilts who doubled up as a double bass player (with an enormous spike). Needless to say, the Scottish Opera all-male chorus acted their parts excellently as well as singing with power and much jollity.
The set design and special effects were creative, elaborate and believable. The set consisted of a street which opened up into the inside of Dr. Bartolo's house. Perspectives were spot on, maintaining the illusion of interconnections between the interior of the house, balcony and front door. The effects team also produced the most unusual and consistent accessories for each character and created a realistic (and rather frightening) thunderstorm in the second act: a cyclist tore across the stage while others battled with inside-out umbrellas during which the ceiling lights swayed and lightening struck.
But perhaps the most impressive aspect was the singing. All of the soloists were first class, creating an electric musical atmosphere. In particular, Thomas Oliemans' (Figaro) first entry was an explosion of sound. Dressed in modern attire of flares and an earring, his tone was bold. Rubato and lots of it secured an exciting performance in which conductor Sergio la Stella and guitarist Allan Neave (who had a prominent role in the first scene of Act I) created precise ensemble. There was also excellent company singing at the end of the first act between the sextet soloists (Dr. Bartolo, Rosina, Almaviva, Figaro, Don Basilio and Berta) and chorus creating a thrilling end to the first half of the performance.
But it was the scene of the singing lesson between Almaviva (Adrian Dwyer), Rosina (Karen Cargill) and Dr. Bartolo (Nicholas Folwell) in Act II that really captured the best of Rossini's comic writing. Rossini's cleverly-engineered singing lesson between Almaviva (who has disguised himself as a replacement singing teacher for Don Basilio) and Rosina, pokes fun at the institution of the prima donna and is the perfect showcase for a talented singer. Cargill held her notes for as long as she could and melodramatically puffed in and out before starting the aria. All her other arias were first rate, too, taking time over phrases and showing off her controlled vibrato. Among the many comic moments, the funniest was when Dr. Bartolo believed he was dancing with Rosina - but in fact it was Figaro! Folwell's performance during that aria displayed the full extent of his range and his flexibility to perform in a stately, outdated style.
Final credit should also go to Karin Thyselius who played the small but important role of Berta, Bartolo's servant, singing her second-act aria brilliantly.
By Mary Robb
Read our interview with Alex Reedijk, Scottish Opera's General Director, on the Five:15 project of new operas by Scottish artists such as Ian Rankin and his plans for the company's future here