20 September 2019
Pierre Beaumarchais’s stories have had a longevity envied by many of his contemporaries I can only imagine – the fact that two of them have become beloved opera’s which are continually performed are as much a tribute to the composers as to the original writer.
Now, I will be honest, I am reviewing this production as a piece of theatre. I can certainly appreciate and comment on good singing and musicality, though the technicalities of opera are not my forte. Opera is often seen as one of the more inaccessible forms of theatre and this Opera Project version of Rossini’s ‘The Barber of Seville’ is set to open The Tobacco Factory’s Autumn Season.
The Tobacco Factory Theatre is not an obvious venue for opera – but why shouldn’t it be? A small ‘in the round’ auditorium, a low ceiling – not a lofty vast cavernous venue as one might think. An intimate setting for an intimate opera and it could not have been more perfect. With a cast of just seven and an orchestra of 11 including the conductor, the feeling is almost as if the performance is in your living room.
Simple sets and excellent costumes, are but the trappings of this wonderful production. There I have said it – wonderful! From the moment the conductor, Jonathan Lyness, sets the orchestra in motion one has a feeling you are in safe hands, and when the action starts and we hear the singing, we know we are.
The rather ludicrous story of unseen and unrequited love, disguises, betrayal, lies and fabrication is a cocktail which enchants and entertains from beginning to end. Richard Studer has translated the original into a modern, quirky and very funny libretto and his direction is choc full of energy and humour – I don’t know when I have laughed so much – it is very funny.
In the central role as Figaro, Philip Smith is engaging, likeable, cheeky and has a wonderfully mellifluous voice; some wonderful timing and comedy skills supplement his strong performance. Nicholas Folwell, as the grouchy old Dr Bartolo who has his heart set on marrying his ward Rosina, gives us a splendid buffoon of a man – his range of facial expressions is a wonder to behold. Julian Close as Don Basilio – another fool – has a voice which rises from the deepest depths, it is rich and powerful and mesmerising. As the central love interest, Rosina, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones is delectable; her wide-eyed looks and beautiful voice just fill the air with joy; her own comic timing is to be admired. Excellent work is also to be seen from Jana Holesworth, as the housekeeper Berta, and Mark Saberton in a number of roles, though it is his playing of the (rather small) cello at the start of the show which set me off laughing.
Last, but not least, the outstanding performance of William Wallace as Count Almaviva. This is magnificent work from this young singer who attacks the role with energy and love and whose comic acting skills are as good as you get – oh, and he has the most glorious voice. This is a skilled performer and one of the best performances I have seen this year. His final disguise into the music teacher provides him with the opportunity to grab a huge number of laughs by doing very little. An utter joy.
The orchestra are first class and never overwhelm the singers – the balance is perfect and Jonathan Lyness leads them with great consideration.
The lengthy first half flew by; testament to the pace of the production which never lets up, due in the main to the director’s skilful direction ‘in the round’ – it is not easy to do and I have seen it fail many times, but the whole audience were brought into the production and, as far as I could tell, loved it.
Making theatre, in all its forms, accessible to all, should be the remit of those who are privileged to be able to produce it. This production from Opera Project and Tobacco Factory Theatres is a prime example of how this can be done. There is nothing out of reach here, it is easy to understand, fun to watch and beautiful to listen to. If you have never seen opera before, then I would urge you to take a look at this version of ‘The Barber of Seville’ – you will be entranced and entertained royally.
To say I enjoyed this production would be an understatement. It is unremittingly entertaining and beautiful.
CAST & CREATIVES
ROSINA – REBECCA AFONWY-JONES
DON BASILIO – JULIAN CLOSE
DR BARTOLO – NICHOLAS FOLWELL
BERTA – JANA HOLESWORTH
FIORELLO/OFFICER – MARK SABERTON
FIGARO – PHILIP SMITH
COUNT ALMAVIVA – WILLIAM WALLACE
MUSIC – GIOACHINO ROSSINI
LIBRETTO – CESARE STERBINI
TRANSLATION – RICHARD STUDER
DESIGN & DIRECTION – RICHARD STUDER
CONDUCTOR – JONATHAN LYNESS
LIGHTING – CHRIS SWAIN
IMAGES – IAN RICE