Cath Barton attends a production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville by Swansea City Opera directed by Brendan Wheatley, a version of the classic with nods to pantomime.
It was a bitterly cold night and there were flakes of snow in the air, enough to keep anyone at home in the warm and in front of the TV. But the crowds turned out to the Borough Theatre in Abergavenny to see Swansea City Opera, which must have been a relief to the theatre management, currently struggling to get enough income from ticket sales to survive beyond the next six months.
Swansea City Opera must also have been relieved to get a good audience. Like all in the arts these days, it faces its own financial restraints, one reason it has chosen for its 2018 tour to revive a production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville from 2011. In the original production, SCO Artistic Director Brendan Wheatley played the role of curmudgeonly Don Bartolo, guardian and would-be husband of Rosina. Wheatley declares in the programme notes that this is one of his favourite roles; for this season he has combined it with taking on the job of stage direction, the director of the original having since died. Set and costumes are revived from 2011.
The Barber of Seville is related to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro insofar as they are both based on comedies by the French playwright Beaumarchais and the main characters are the same, but playing out different scenarios at different stages in their lives. In both operas Figaro plays a prominent part as a fixer, controlling the destinies of the other characters by his manipulations.
Cast as Figaro the eponymous barber here was Swedish baritone Håkan Vramsmo, who has taken roles in several past SCO productions. He was vocally sound but seemed to me a little uncomfortable in the role, not fully commanding the action as his character demanded, and indeed as his physical height should have enabled. Having said that, his classical guitar playing was a nice touch and I very much enjoyed him singing as a trio with the would-be lovers Count Almaviva and Rosina.
Tenor Aidan Coburn and mezzo Annabella Ellis were well-matched as Almaviva and Rosina. Both combined vocal intensity with charm, had good diction, showed great dexterity in their coloratura singing and acted extremely well. Impressively, Coburn was a different character vocally when masquerading as Don Alonso, the substitute for the supposedly unwell music master. The roles of Almaviva and Rosina are double-cast, so that SCO is laudably providing four up-and-coming professional singers with substantial experience and exposure on this tour, which takes in 21 regional theatres in total.
Paul Hudson reprised the role of the music master Don Basilio which he took in the original production. In remarkable make-up and a hat which threatened to up-stage him, he cut a striking figure. With his rich bass voice and stage presence he made a strong contribution, as did Brendan Wheatley, clearly enjoying himself hugely playing the basso-buffo role of Don Bartolo.
This is a comic opera. The success or otherwise of the comedy depends in part on the delivery and ornamentation of the vocal lines, which was, overall, very well done. In particular, Brendan Wheatley showed his versatility as a singer, delivering a section of Don Bartolo’s patter song, ‘A un dottor della mia sorte’ (To a man of my importance) through clenched teeth with a paintbrush held between them at one point, and at another breaking into falsetto.
Whether or not the opera is actually funny also depends on the acting, itself to a large extent determined by the direction. Here I felt the production was more uneven. This is a 19th century Italian opera, set in a monochrome ersatz 17th century Spain in 18th century-style costumes, so an eclectic mix to start with, but even so Mark Saberton as the Count’s servant pretending to play his lute à la Jimi Hendrix was anachronistic without being particularly funny.
Fair enough that the action in this production should be played with a nod to pantomine – there was for example a nice near custard-pie moment – but I felt that the action lacked unity and was over-busy. The rushing about during the storm scene distracted me from the interesting orchestration; the weaving of the characters up and down the line at the end of Act One in something that didn’t quite become a dance seemed similarly pointless.
This said there were scenes in which I enjoyed the ‘business’ very much, particularly the episode when the supposedly sick Don Basilio arrives and is persuaded that he is ill after all, when the five main characters sing the quintet ‘Buona sera, mio Signore’ (Fare you well then, good Signore).
Amongst the secondary characters special mention is due to mezzo Imogen Garner, playing the role of Dr Bartolo’s housemaid Berta. I thought she characterised the role beautifully, and that her aria, alone on stage lamenting her loneliness, ‘Il vecchiotto cerca moglie’ (The old man seeks a wife), stood in poignant counterpoint to the frenzy of most of The Barber of Seville.
Any musical production has to find a balance between characters simply standing singing and movement around the stage. It also has to be careful to avoid pointless gesture. Too often this is where amateur productions fall down. Involving groups of amateur singers in different venues for chorus numbers as SCO do means that they have to beware of people ‘sawing the air’. Here, singers from Gwent Bach Society and Haverfordwest Operatic Society were the chorus. In the opening scene a small group was onstage as a motley band of musicians, so I felt that the disparate movement and gesture was appropriate – and a particular hurrah to the tambourine player here for what I thought was actually very nice gesture. In later scenes the chorus were mostly sensibly corralled behind a scenery wall, where their job was confined to adding to the vocal texture.
There was a good balance of sound between the singers and the reduced orchestra of five strings plus wind players – plus conductor John Beswick in keyboard for the recitative sections. Gary McCann’s cardboard cut-out style sets were functional, giving enough context to the action without being overly complicated. Gabriel Ingram’s costumes for Don Basilio and Count Almaviva in his Don Alonso subterfuge were great fun, and I have to give another mention to the fantastic rolled-brim hats!
I fully recognise the scale of the enterprise which Swansea City Opera take on with their annual tours (as well as their smaller shows and outreach work). I applaud the commitment of Brendan Wheatley and his co-director Bridgett Gill in continuing this work in what must feel like an embattled environment. English-speaking audiences appreciate opera sung in English as these are, especially in houses where no surtitles are possible. I also recognise that SCO’s operas, including this one at its Abergavenny performance, receive very enthusiastic audience responses, and that Brendan Wheatley has a devoted following. These things count for a lot.
The Barber of Seville
Swansea City Opera and Orchestra
Director: Brendan Wheatley
Musical Director: John Beswick
Set Designer: Gary McCann
Costume Designer: Gabriella Ingram
Orchestral arrangement/Conductor: John Beswick
Borough Theatre, Abergavenny
17th March 2018
Header photo of Count Almaviva (Aidan Coburn), Rosina (Annabella Ellis) and Figaro (Håkan Vramsmo) by Guy Harrop.
Cath Barton’s novella The Plankton Collector is due to be published in September 2018 by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint. She has been awarded a place on the 2018 Literature Wales Mentoring Scheme, to work on a collection of short stories inspired by the work of the sixteenth century Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch.
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