Monday 18 June 2018

Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia at The Grange Festival

Rossini: Il barbiere di Siviglia - Charles Rice - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)
Rossini: Il barbiere di Siviglia - Charles Rice & chorus - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)   
Rossini Il barbiere di Siviglia; John Irvin, Jose Maria Lo Monaco, Charles Rice, Riccardo Novaro, dir: Stephen Barlow, cond: David Parry; The Grange Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 June 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A busily engaging and highly theatrical account of Rossini's comedy

Rossini: Il barbiere di Siviglia - Jose Maria Lo Monaco - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)
Jose Maria Lo Monaco
The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)   
On a rather grim, cold evening The Grange Festival's lively new production of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia certainly brought a welcome feeling of brightness and warmth. Directed by Stephen Barlow, designed by Andrew D Edwards with lighting by Howard Hudson, cast featured the American tenor John Irvin as Count Almaviva, the Italian mezzo-soprano Jose Maria Lo Monaco as Rosina, the Anglo-French baritone Charles Rice as Figaro and the Italian baritone Riccardo Novaro as Dr. Bartolo, with David Soar as Don Basilio, Jennifer Rhys-Davies as Berta and Toby Girling as Fiorillo. David Parry conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

David Parry and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra gave us an engaging account of the overture, with lyricism contrasted with finely pointed detail. Parry's speeds were steady at first, concentrating on character yet keeping the excitement building to the rush at the very end. The overture was played with the curtain down, but at the end Toby Girling's Fiorillo appeared through the curtain, dressed in 18th century style, to urge Parry and the orchestra to rush to the end. Fiorillo's friends were all musicians, come to accompany Almaviva and they disappeared into the orchestra pit.  John Irvin's Count appeared at first in 18th century dress, but for his opening serenade (played initially with the curtain down) he dressed in modern guise.

This scene encapsulated elements of Barlow's approach to the piece. There was a sense of performance in the theatre, with the characters sometimes seemingly knowing they were in a performance with an audience, and with much interaction with David Parry. This was combined with a deliberately anachronistic approach to the setting, so that modern and period references combined. Almaviva's disguises were all modern dress and the chorus was modern dress, yet the other characters were mainly period, but we had modern references with the presence of mobile phones, vacuum cleaners etc. There was also a playfully entertaining approach to the staging, keeping things moving and with the larger numbers busily stage, as well as an admixture of the absurd.

Rossini: Il barbiere di Siviglia - David Soar, Riccardo Novaro - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)
David Soar, Riccardo Novaro - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)   
When the curtain did rise, Andrew D Edwards' set was similarly wittily entertaining with a moustache featuring heavily. In fact the moustache made its presence felt even before the opera started as there was a huge one on the side of the Northington Grange house, and the mock footlights in the theatre were moustaches. The set was the curve of a traditional theatre within which Dr Bartolo's house was a huge face of Rossini, yet with a giant topiary moustache, and the 'balcony' through which Rosina is seen was the pair of opening eyes in the face. When the house rotated for the interior scenes the result was a more traditional, if de-constructed 18th century interior with a cage-like upper level which was Rosina's domain.

The central part of the set, with its revolve worked very well for the production and the imagination and wit of the designs contributed to the fun. The outer theatre part of the designs seemed under used and this theatrical element in the production seemed perhaps not quite as developed as it might have been.

Barlow's overall approach seemed to throw quite a lot of elements into the mix, this was a deliberately eclectic and very busy production. The big numbers were all highly choreographed with extensive use of the chorus, even when not singing. So that the chorus provided Figaro's customers in a staging of 'Largo al factotum' which involved a member of the audience being brought on stage to be 'shaved', and in Almaviva and Figaro's Act One duet, as Figaro describes his shop and its location the chorus appear to create a simulacrum of it. Barlow had some imaginative ideas for the complex ensembles, and I liked the way that Figaro, Almaviva and the chorus were the the only ones to move when the remainder of the soloists sang about being unable to move. These were dazzling pieces of theatre, yet seemed to sometimes detract from the central musical performances.

Rossini: Il barbiere di Siviglia - Riccardo Novaro, John Irvin - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)
Riccardo Novaro, John Irvin - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)   
For all the production's imagination, I felt that Barlow had rather crammed too many ideas onto the stage. But the results were crisply and vividly presented by the cast, with the chorus, in particular, giving us some impressively choreographed moments, and I have to admit that the staging was extremely popular with the audience.

It helped too that Barlow drew strong performances from his cast. The recitatives were notable for their drama and vividness, perhaps having two native Italian speakers in the cast helped.

John Irvin made an appealingly nerdy Almaviva, an engagingly youthful presence. Gone are the days when lyric tenors could slide their way around Almaviva's complex roulades, and we now expect Rossini's comic operas to be performed with the same sense of style and precision as the serious ones, and indeed the music is no less complex. Irvin combined a nicely light lyric voice with a creditable technique and sense of style. He took a little time to warm up, and in his opening aria his tone had a tendency to harden, but this relaxed as the evening went on. Irvin was denied his final aria, a traditional cut which is a mistake as the last scene seems structurally incomplete without the concluding rondo which was an essential part of this style of opera.

Rossini: Il barbiere di Sivigila - Charles Rice, Jose Maria Lo Monaco - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)
Charles Rice, Jose Maria Lo Monaco
The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)   
Jose Maria Lo Monaco was a great find as Rosina. She sang with a fine technique and a lovely soft grained warmth, creating a really appealing sense of character yet bringing out the detail in Rossini's writing. Her opening aria was rightly a highlight; here and elsewhere she brought a genuine sense of warm and fun to the performance rather than simply being a spitfire. This Rosina was very much a modern woman, at the opening of Act Two we even see her in her bath, and her letter scene with Irvin's Almaviva was a complete delight, with the two clearly having great fun yet creating a real spark between the characters.

Charles Rice's Figaro was equally impressive and very important to the mix. He brought great charm, warmth and personality to the role, singing with authority yet without bombast so that this Figaro really did seem a personable fixer.  There were a couple of moments where Rice's patter in the faster passages did not seem to have quite bedded down yet, but whilst the brilliant theatricality of the staging of 'Largo al factotum' might have threatened to overwhelm the performer, Rice's full personality and strong performance ensure that he still dominated.

There was no attempt to make Riccardo Novaro act old as Dr Bartolo, he was simply the rather tyrannical and unpleasant. Yet Novaro also crated a warmly lively personality, this Bartolo had appealing elements to his character. This was partly because Novaro himself is such an engaging performer, bringing effortless style to Rossini's music and a great sense of fun.

David Soar was a very modern Don Basilio, despite his 18th century dress. Constantly listening to his iPhone, his brilliant rendition of the calumny aria was enlivened by his use of a mobile phone to develop the calumny, and Soar brought a lovely burnished dark tone to the aria too. Similarly Jennifer Rhys-Davies was the modern image of the slightly slatternly housekeeper, constantly wandering around the stage observing, and always on the phone when not observed, yet she also brought a brilliant theatricality to her aria. Toby Girling was engaging in the small role of Fiorillo.

Rossini's opera is as much about the interactions of the characters as their solo moments and all concerned created a vital sense of drama and propulsion. Il barbiere di Siviglia is not a short opera, yet the whole bowled along and the long first act, in particular, had the sort of dramatic momentum which kept the audience engaged.

David Parry provided the lively piano recitative,  full of engaging little details. Some moments of ensemble between pit and stage had not quite settled. But David Parry kept the orchestra on a tight rein so that the rhythms and momentum of Rossini's writing were crisp and tight, with a strong feeling of building excitement in the ensembles. Yet we also had some lovely lyrical moments.

Rossini: Il barbiere di Siviglia - John Irvin & chorus - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)
Rossini: Il barbiere di Siviglia - John Irvin & chorus - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)   
This was a busily engaging performance, breaking no new ground but drawing strong performances out of the cast to ensure that the wit and musical brilliance of Rossini's opera came over.

Update: My apologies for making assumptions about who was playing the continuo. Correspondents have pointed out that it was in fact the conductor David Parry providing the piano continuo and I have updated the review accordingly.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Seriously unusual: Stephen Barlow introduces Buxton Festival's production of Verdi's Alzira - interview
  • Second View: Mozart's Cosi fan tutte at Opera Holland Park conducted by George Jackson (★★★) - opera review
  • Sei solo: Bach's partitas and sonatas for violin alone from Thomas Bowles (★★★½) - CD review
  • Io la Musica son: Francesca Aspromonte in Prologue  (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Aldeburgh Festival: Britten and Bernstein side by side in Suffolk (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Young Artists performance of La Traviata at Opera Holland Park (★★★½) - Opera review
  • Musical beauty: new production of Lohengrin at Covent Garden  (★★★½) - Opera review
  • A little bit of magic: Miah Persson in Richard Strauss' Capriccio at Garsington Opera (★★★½) - Opera review
  • Coloured lights: Kander & Ebb's The Rink makes a triumphant return (★★★½) - musical theatre review
  • Genial conversations with old friends : I Musicanti at St John's Smith Square (★★★½) - Concert review
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