Giles Havergal made a name and considerable reputation for himself in over thirty years' work at the Citizens' Theatre Glasgow and this revival of his 1986 production of The Barber of Seville for WNO is a very theatrical reading of the piece. The stage within a stage is a wooden construction consisting of several different levels. Figaro's barber's shop is beneath, screened by curtains that advertise his name: steps lead up to a reception hall area stage right, then on up to Bartolo's living room stage left and then back and up again to Rosina's bedroom, in the presumed attic of the house. Around this structure there are benches as in a village square: the inhabitants of some locality are watching, as are we, a performance that inhabits the built structure.
The feel is commedia dell'arte: players have arrived from somewhere (they have their fans among the village folk, who react appropriately to their onstage performances) and they give us the tale of the Barber of Seville. If this sounds a bit fussy, never fear: it works. This WNO production is a carefree, happy piece of music theatre, sung in an idiomatic English translation that still clearly delights large audiences some twenty-two years after its creation.
The Hippodrome was largely full in contrast to WNO's Jenufa the previous night and full moreover with many young people, who clearly enjoyed the pace, verve and wit of this production. In terms of role characterisation and delivery, pride of place has to go to Eric Roberts as Dr. Bartolo, a marvellously rounded performance that the cast clearly enjoyed almost as much as the audience. Roberts played Bartolo as a Victor Meldrew figure, constantly fussing and whining around the stage, seeing all his well-laid plans come to nothing and reduced ultimately to the line with which he literally kicked off the second half of the show I don't believe it! His voice was small for the Hippodrome auditorium but his delivery had all the panache we have come to expect from this accomplished and experienced singer.
His foil and his ultimate Nemesis, Figaro, was sung by the youthful and appealing American baritone John Moore, until recently a Metropolitan Opera Young Artist. Moore brought a great deal of charm to the role, moved easily onstage and showed promise. The voice is relatively light as yet and the stage persona undeveloped, but this was a competent, graceful sing that fitted well into the production style and Moore made the most of his many opportunities for comic by-play.
A light-voiced Figaro also makes a good contrast with Basilio, singing teacher to Rosina, and here we had an imposing performance to enjoy from the tall, ridiculously attired and made-up Tim Mirfin. If you think of Sparafucile as a drag queen, you get the overall idea a slim but imposing figure gliding silently round the stage but with a dark, cavernous bass sound every time he opens his mouth. La calumnia was taken slightly too slowly for my taste so the crescendi sounded laboured rather than sparklingly natural, but Mirfin nailed the part and gave us some excellent singing as the evening progressed. But for me the stand-out male singing overall came from tenor Colin Lee as Count Almaviva. He has a natural, absolutely unforced sweet ring to the voice and makes the vocal line sound effortless this was true bel canto and absolutely wonderful to hear.
The ladies made less of an impression than they sometimes do in this opera as housekeeper Berta, Naomi Harvey acted and sang dependably throughout and joined in the fun whenever she was called upon to do so but as Rosina, Laura Parfitt was in insipid voice, with no real bloom to the sound. Una voce poco fa in Act One was too carefully controlled and as a result lacked the thrill of Rossini pushing the soprano (or more properly mezzo soprano) voice to extremes. But in a sense none of this really mattered: Havergal's production is all about ensemble playing, and in this department the two ladies joined in with the rest of the cast in some wonderful comic moments. It is hard to forget the whole cast of principals, hands linked right across the onstage house, all suddenly freezing in mid-number before skipping away at increasing volume and tempo into one of those wonderful Rossini finales.
Simon Philippo conducted: he is an alert musician, set (on the whole) lively tempi and kept the show moving along. Once or twice stage and pit parted company, not for long but noticeably so. But specific points of criticism pale beside the overall effect of this Barber: it would make a great pre-Christmas treat for a family with teenage, or even pre-teen children. I enjoyed it hugely.