Monday 27 June 2022

An afternoon delight: Anna Morrisey's inventive production of Rossini's The Barber of Seville at Nevill Holt Opera, in a finely musical performance conducted by Dinis Sousa

Rossini: The Barber of Seville - Nevill Holt Opera 2022 (Photo Genevieve Girling)
Rossini: The Barber of Seville - end of Act One - Nevill Holt Opera 2022 (Photo Genevieve Girling)

Rossini: The Barber of Seville; Liam Bonthrone, Michel de Souza, Sarah Champion, Grant Doyle, Andri Björn Róbertsson, Janis Kelly, director: Anna Morrissey, Royal Northern Sinfonia, conductor Dinis Sousa; Nevill Holt Opera
Reviewed 26 June 2022 (★★★★)

Anarchic, inventive yet well-observed production of Rossini's comic opera, in a crisply engaging musical performance

For its Summer season this year, Nevill Holt Opera is back in its regular theatre, the lovely modern space inserted into Nevill Holt's historic stables. The first opera of the season was Puccini's La boheme, and on Sunday 26 June 2022, we caught Anna Morrissey's production of Rossini's The Barber of Seville. Dinis Sousa conducted the Royal Northern Sinfonia, with Liam Bonthrone as Almaviva, Michel de Souza as Figaro, Sarah Champion as Rosina, Grant Doyle as Dr Bartolo, Andri Björn Róbertsson as Don Basilio  and Janis Kelly as Berta. Peter Davies played the fortepiano continuo. Designs were by Alex Berry, with lighting by Jamie Platt.

Morrissey's production was modern dress with Berry's set designs being a symphony of pink (surely an ironic gesture given Bartolo was a surly curmudgeon). There was a strong 1980s feel about everything, perhaps as a genuine setting but possibly to suggest that Dr Bartolo was rather stuck in a time-warp, certainly Grant Doyle's Bartolo with his beard, greasy long hair and dodgy suit seemed somewhat stuck in an image of his youth. As with many modern performances, the production was less about Count Almaviva's disguising himself to his his elevated status and more about the attempts to release Sarah Champion's Rosina from her prison. Shorn of its historic, Iberian context, Bartolo's immuring of his ward seems even more arbitrary and cruel, and this inevitably skews the perception of this plot. Every generation re-interprets the classics, and different perceptions come and go. What counted here was not so much the dramaturgy as Morrissey's very inventive approach to the production.

Rossini: The Barber of Seville - Sarah Champion, Michel de Souza, Liam Bonthrone - Nevill Holt Opera 2022 (Photo Genevieve Girling)
Rossini: The Barber of Seville - Sarah Champion, Michel de Souza, Liam Bonthrone - Nevill Holt Opera 2022 (Photo Genevieve Girling)

Despite Morrissey being credited as designer and movement director, this was not a production that was choreographed within an inch of its life (a typical directorial response to Rossini's long, stylised ensembles). Instead Morrissey took a highly inventive approach, as well as bringing on lots of gags. Yes, this was quite a physical production, but she also allowed her principals to have time and space to themselves, with chaos happening round them. A key moment was the stunningly inventive approach to the first major ensemble in the Act One finale, when the principals all sang about being frozen like a statue. As they indeed were, with the chorus of policemen (in hi-vis jackets, cycle helmets and tight cycling shorts) made free with the house. Elsewhere, Morrissey sometimes had a tendency to over-egg things, the routine for Figaro's barber shop, when Michel de Souza sang Figaro's lead aria, was a case in point yet by having a routine undertaken by two other barbers (this Figaro clearly ran quite an establishment), Morrissey left de Souza that space to do his own thing. Whilst the 1980s vibe was certainly enhanced by Bonthrone's disguise for the music scene in Act Two, instead of a quasi cleric he seemed to be a Liberace clone, complete with terrible wig, a lurid, lurex suit and a slapped on smile.

I don't know whether the recitative was more uncut than usual, but certainly I noticed lines that I had not done before. And partly this was because some of the action seemed to be the result of a close reading of the text and Morrissey had mined this for some lovely details (Bartolo's comment about Figaro, 'Un ospedale ha fatto di tutta la famiglia a forza d'oppio, sangue e stranutiglia' / 'With opium, blood and sneezing powder he has made a hospital of the whole household'). Berta (Janis Kelly) being addicted to tobacco and snuff, Ambrogio (William Diggle) being an opium addict. This latter helped explain why he does not get involved in the action more and in fact Diggle spent much of Act One comatose on the floor! Throughout the opera, the various details of the plot were neatly handled; The Barber of Seville has its farcical element to it and like most of that genre, the mechanics of the plot require neat footwork from the director. We got all the detail here, nicely embedded in the crazy goings on.

Sarah Champion was a very appealing Rosina, quite feisty and very stylish, both in dress in and in her approach to the music. She has quite a light mezzo-soprano, fluid and easy rather than fruity, but her approach to the fioriture was pin-sharp. She did not over-do the viperishness in her big aria but there was a definite feeling of it. Throughout, Champion made this Rosina appealingly self-reliant, and her approach to the music was always vivid and sharp, combined with a stylish visual language.

Rossini: The Barber of Seville - Liam Bonthrone, Malachy Frame & chorus - Nevill Holt Opera 2022 (Photo Genevieve Girling)
Rossini: The Barber of Seville - Liam Bonthrone, Malachy Frame & chorus - Nevill Holt Opera 2022 (Photo Genevieve Girling)

As her beloved, Liam Bonthrone manage to make Almaviva a bit less of a drip than usual. It helped that he has an fine lyric voice with an easy top so that the tessitura of the role seemed to hold no terrors for him, and his first aria (the serenade in the first scene) was beautifully done and this can often be a hurdle for young singers. Bonthrone's approach to the passagework was light and fleet, occasionally it could have been a bit more pin-sharp, but overall it was an adroit and stylish account of a tricky role. He successfully combined roulades with something of a cheekie-chappie persona, a personable lad. And certainly Bonthrone developed lively relationships with both Michel de Souza's Figaro and Sarah Champion's Rosina.

Michel de Souza was a poised and self-possessed Figaro, one who was always in control and delighted in it. De Souza's approach to his famous aria was vividly done, without making too much of the buffo element (easy enough to do given the lively staging), and throughout there was a sense of the character anchoring the action, guiding it and always there was a lively gleam in De Souza's eye. A strong performance that made its presence felt not only in the aria, but as a lively partner in the recitatives and ensembles. 

Grant Doyle's Dr Bartolo was very much a sleazy curmudgeon, the humour arising because of the mismatch between the character's view of himself as a lothario and the reality of his approach and looks. Also, the production did not shy away from the fact that there is an element of nastiness perhaps even violence to the character which can often be overlooked in a pure buffo performance. Doyle certainly had great fun laying it on, and perhaps we were less sympathetic than usual at the old man's come-uppance. 

The notes about the production mentioned giving Rosina more agency, but surely this approach can be seen in the making of Bartolo as something less than a sad clown. But it was never over done and Doyle had a whale of a term, and at the end clearly teamed up with Janis Kelly's determinedly sexy Berta.

Andri Björn Róbertsson was a delightfully slime-ball Don Basilio. Björn Róbertsson used his height and physical flexibility to maximum comic effect, which only served to heighten his contributions to the various ensemble and make his calumny aria a masterpiece of comic timing, combined with Björn Róbertsson's fabulously dark bass-baritone voice.

Rossini: The Barber of Seville - Grant Doyle, Sarah Champion - Nevill Holt Opera 2022 (Photo Genevieve Girling)
Rossini: The Barber of Seville - Grant Doyle, Sarah Champion - Nevill Holt Opera 2022 (Photo Genevieve Girling)

Janis Kelly was full of character as Berta, maximising the character's moments in the spotlight without pulling focus, giving a neatly lively account of her aria and doing her damnedest to pull Grant Doyle's Dr Bartolo into her clutches. But Berta's main role in the drama is simply to be there, to provide a soprano line in the ensembles, and this Kelly did finely too.

Malachy Frame was nicely sad and put-upon as Fiorello, whilst William Kyle maximised his height (and lycra clad lower half) to great comic effect as the police officer. Tom Deazley wasthe notary.

The small chorus of seven made a strong impression, whether as musicians in the first scene or as anarchic policemen in the final scene of Act One. They made a lively and vivid sound which combined with a surprisingly strong stage presence.

In the pit, the Royal Northern Sinfonia and Dinis Sousa (the ensemble's principal conductor) set the tone from the very beginning, giving us a crisp and exciting account of the overture. Throughout, playing was pin-sharp and you sensed Sousa's period instrument experience coming to the fore so that playing was always engaging and never overdone. Sousa's speeds were on the fleet side and some of the numbers went at quite a lick, but the singers were always with him. Grant Doyle's patter aria particularly impressed, but everyone was neat and on the ball. 

Rossini: The Barber of Seville - Nevill Holt Opera 2022 (Photo Genevieve Girling)
Rossini: The Barber of Seville - Nevill Holt Opera 2022 (Photo Genevieve Girling)

Rossini's The Barber of Seville is an opera that allows a variety of approaches. Here we had a musically strong performance allied to a highly inventive and very funny production, yet one which clearly reflected what was in the libretto. All in all an afternoon delight (and the afternoon tea served in the interval was spiffing too). There are two more performances at Nevill Holt (28 and 29 June) and then there are further performances at Sage Gateshead (2 and 3 July).

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