Directed by Elijah Moshinsky
Conducted by Andrea Molino
Joan Sutherland Theatre
The Opera House, Bennelong Point
Season (see website for exact performance dates): 28 January – 22 March
The Barber of Seville. Whether or not you know the opera by name, I’d hedge my bets that you’d definitely know some of its music. Written and composed by Rossini in 1813, this music has been emblazoned through pop culture for years – especially the famous Figaro’s entrance (that name ring any bells?) Essentially, the opera is a comedic love story, and Elijah Moshinsky’s production with Opera Australia hits all the sweet spots, delivering comically and of course, musically.
Almaviv is a strapping young chap with hefty wealth who has become taken by the young and pretty Rosina. Concerned that she may fall for him only for his money and status, he sets out to woo her in disguise to be sure that she falls for him rather than his assets. Initially with no success, Almaviv enlists Figaro’s assistance – the plucky and charismatic Barber of Seville.
We meet Rosina in a world wholly determined by men and marriage. Locked up (literally, in her bedroom) by her controlling ward, Bertolo, who plans to marry her, smothering her with his aggressive and abusive ‘love’ – Rosina’s only way out is to marry another man before Bertolo marries her. It’s lucky she likes Almaviv and he seems to treat her well – because she is completely reliant on his willingness to liberate her from Bertolo through marriage. In spite of all this, I should note that the opera is a comedy, and a very amusing one at that. However Rosina’s situation is indicative of the relatively powerless situation of women in the 1700s when it was originally set, with circumstances requiring no change when moving the setting to the 1920s and which trigger little surprise when observed by today’s contemporary audience - just some food for thought.
The conductor, Andrea Molino, leads the orchestra with great vigour and precision to produce Rossini’s complex rhythms. The opera singers respond with vast skill, on top of the tempo whilst patter singing and exhibiting deft use of sotto voce. Paolo Bordogna as Figaro possesses an incredibly strong voice, sending mirthful shivers to the spine. Kenneth Tarver as Almaviv shows off his brightly expressive face and voice, harking to the 1920s silent film vibes that Moshinsky aims to evoke. Anna Dowsley communicates sweetness in her tone and demeanour that ignites a warm rapport with the audience. Worthy of a mention is Jane Ede as Berta, who flurries in the background for much of the scenes in Bertolo’s home, yet shines vocally when given the opportunity to display her high soprano range.
The set design, by Michael Yeargan, strikes the audience as a very pretty picture throughout. Uniform rows of houses that concurrently light up and switch off as night and day pass create a lovely idyllic façade. However this façade is inverted when we peer into Bertolo’s unhappy house. Yeargan’s design cuts a cross-section through his house, revealing each room and staircase to the audience. While this worked conceptually and had an initial picture-perfect visual effect, the design proved problematic with staging as the scene progressed. A large staircase featured in the centre, framed by 5 different surroundings spaces of the house, sectioned by the cross-section of the walls. This staircase/corridor area often created dead-space largely unused by the performers, casting the main action into corner pockets of the stage, and reducing the overall impact. Yeargan’s more simple designs were highly effective, however, notably the Barbershop setting for Figaro’s entrance, featuring ravishing candy-stripes and vintage cartoons on a backdrop.
A common question I’m asked when I say I went to an opera is ‘did you understand it?’ To this, I must say, is that opera is far more accessible than many seem to think. Especially in this work, the humour is derived from physical comedy tropes, prevalent in the silent film era. Through common expressions, gestures and emotions, a story can be communicated and understood – further, thoroughly enjoyed – by anyone. What’s more, music is a universal language with no bounds, enabling the power of opera to take anyone on a journey.