Left - Henry Choo & Emma Matthews. Cover - Warwick Fyfe & Company. Photos - Jeff Busby
A rollicking near-cartoon of an opera, considered by many to be the definitive opera buffa, Gioacchino Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia is a kind of madcap prequel to Mozart’s La nozze di Figaro. While it lacks the genre-transcending resonance of that earlier work – which, to be fair, it makes no attempt to replicate – it more than makes up for it in sheer exuberance. With its instantly recognisable overture and its light-as-a-feather libretto, not to mention some of the most famous arias in the history of the form, Barbiere is quite simply one the most unashamedly enjoyable – and best loved – warhorses in the repertoire.
Set in the 1930s at a Catalan health spa for the rich and famous – its patients include two injured matadors and a moustachioed painter reminiscent of Dali – John Milson's current production of the work is conceptually interesting but inadequately realised. Unfolding across an elaborate, some would say self-indulgent, set, the production’s emphasis on its visual elements does more to hinder its success than to help it. Ostensibly modelled after the work of Gaudi, Leon Krasenstein's set design seems to me to owe more to The Little Mermaid than it does to the Sagrada Familia. Its palette is one of blue-green aquas, its forms evocative of seashells and finger coral. It's all the singers can do not to break out into an impromptu rendition of 'Under the Sea'.
But the problem with the set is not so much its visual design – if a bit overwrought, the interpretation is nonetheless valid, and comes up quite well under sensitive lighting – as it is the spatial imperatives that it imposes on the singers. Krasentein’s problematic arrangement of space – in particular the barbershop, downstage in a claustrophobic alcove – seems to have little more than passing concern for its potential to suffocate the voice. More attractive to the eye than attentive to the ear, the set is an unfortunate example of impractical – and therefore bad – design.
However, blessed with good humour, a magnificent score (conducted here with élan by Richard Bonynge), and a leading lady to write home to mother about, the production never really displeases – even when it’s difficult to hear – and is, more often than not, almost helplessly endearing. This is mainly due to the performances which, while struggling, sometimes not very hard, against attempts by the set to swallow them whole, are genuinely charming and, as caricatures, well drawn.
Luke Gabbedy isn’t a remarkable Figaro – José Carbó, who was meant to have sung the role, has been struck down by laryngitis – but more than makes up for technical imprecision with his youthful energy and swagger. Warwick Fyfe's Dr Bartolo is delightfully repellent. Henry Choo, Richard Alexander and Rosemary Gunn are all very serviceable, if not particularly exciting, and (with the exception of Choo) fit their characters' visual types like gloves.
But the highlight – not only of the cast, but also of the production more generally – is the full-bodied performance of Emma Matthews. Her Rosina is deceptively playful, her voice a taut, soprano sucker-punch. Puckish and innocent yet buxom and sexy, it’s the only performance in the whole production that really matches the music for sheer personality.
Matthews’ voice, when it flies, soars. Her coloratura is pyrotechnic. When she sings the famous music lesson scene, as though popping corn on her upper-register, the hairs stand up on the back of your neck and you suspect that this is what opera really sounds like. It's the type of performance that one can't easily forget: Matthews, who I suspect knows how good she is, occasionally lifts the production to a whole other plane.
The hardest thing for a critic to evoke is a feeling of slightly
lukewarm ambivalence. It’s far easier to swing between violent extremes –
between overt antipathy and mindless enthusiasm – than it is to articulate mild
indifference. But sometimes this is precisely the feeling one walks away with
after seeing a show: a feeling of pleasant nothingness. With the exception of Matthews,
who could sing the phone book and have me doing backwards somersaults with
pleasure, the production did little more than make feel that writing the review
would be very difficult. I just wish that it had made me feel more. I just wish
that it had made me feel something. And in the end isn't this perhaps
the most damning indictment of them all?
Opera Australia presents
The Barber of Seville
Venue: State Theatre | the Arts Centre
Dates/Times: Evenings at 7.30pm – April 14, 17, 21, 25, 27; May 3, 5, 10; Matinee at 1.00pm – May 12
Duration: 2 hours and 50 minutes with one 20-minute interval
Free Opera Talks: April 25 & May 5 – 45 minutes before performances
Tickets: $50 - $210 | a children’s price of $40-$44 is available for all performances
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 136 166, Arts Centre Box Office or www.opera-australia.org.au