Had planned a trip to Edinburgh about four months ago, a city I particularly love. And looking through listings I realised that Scottish Opera were in town, with their Barber. So I thought it was a good reason to attend my first production by the company. This was a revival of the 2007 Tom Allen production and considering the complicated, roaming nature of the company it is very well done overall. Have to admit to having a bias against singers directing opera as they tend to either lack ideas or to just mush into a pulp elements of the different productions they have been in and trying to pass it off as something new.
Allen’s Seville is thoroughly traditional in look, down to the last window shatter. The set is essentially a street frontage with a removable section that gives access to Dr Bartolo’s house. It is well done if slightly unimaginative. One major plus for lots of viewers will be the hugely cluttered set, lots of net curtains, tables, a framed reproduction of Goya’s La maja desnuda resting against the wall upright, birdcages hanging from the ceiling etc etc etc. Personally I find too much clutter restricts what the singers can do on stage and for an opera buffa like the Barber it can create over reliance to nick nacks to arouse amusement. Which brings it too close to panto. No, don’t think for a minute I’m encouraging bare sets with a huge incline, as the current fashion. But we have to question how wise it is to have traditional productions that degrade the content to repetitive slapstick. Any production of the Barber has to be entertaining but that has to come from the performances as the moving force n0t the silly addition of false teeth or cubic meters of talcum powder.
Knowing of the recent troubles of the orchestra of Scottish Opera, I was most apprehensive about their performance. They seemed to respond well to the energetic conducting of Francesco Conti, despite the odd mishap here and there, they gave a lively if a bit underpowered in volume, reading (I’d attribute that to the acoustic of the theatre making the orchestra sound too small). It’s such a familiar score most of us become over-critical to the point of being unfair. An older gentleman seating in front of me spent most of the evening looking totally transfixed by the sight of the conductor, a rather amusing distraction from the awfully uncomfortable seating! How can they possibly be using this theatre alongside the Usher Hall as the main venue for the Festival every year? After the First Act my back was aching like hell!
The cast overall gave a spirited and committed performance, but have to single out Thomas Walker whose assumption of Count Almaviva was terribly worrisome during the First Act. While his tone is warm and has the handsome looks, he seemed to be very uncomfortable with any sections that drove him above forte. His upper register had a shrillness and coarse texture, that combined with the veiled quality of the voice made it a struggle to sit through the Act. Was he unwell, we were not informed but really felt for him as he surely must have being uncomfortable. I can though happily mention that his Second Act was a huge improvement, the veiled sound had disappeared and his singing became much more even and handsome throughout his range. A recovery of such extent I’ve never witnessed before!
One aspect that is the most difficult to deliver in any production of the Barber is comic timing. This cast surely gelled well together and particularly Figaro, Don Basilio and Dr Bartolo seemed to have a whale of a time. The Rosina of Claire Booth was a sweet creature with intelligence and cheek. Her Una voce was well detailed but lacked the liquidity in the upper register that makes it seem effortless. But her stage presence and charm made up for that. Her music lesson scene was a true star turn. In turns smitten and resolute. I’m sure it must be a lovely time to spend away from all the contemporary roles she has been taking on in the last few years.
Ville Rusanen’s Figaro was effervescent, with a true weasely look to him and a voice that tackled the runs and high notes with agility and gleam. Maybe not a truly Italianate voice with a more resonant chest voice, but a sensation on the night and rightfully so. My only criticism would be that he broke out of character after his Largo al Factorum, but that’s a touch mean spirited of me to mention.
Tiziano Bracci’s Dr Bartolo, a role so central to the story and a true Basso Buffo was another true star turn. He was lovably odd and calculating. His stage charisma is undeniable and aroused some loud belly laughs from the audience. Especially his singing during the music lesson was exemplary and a comedic master class. An excellent casting choice by Scottish Opera.
All in all a wonderfully entertaining evening out, despite the shortcomings of the staging. Next time I see a Scottish Opera production though, I’ll make sure it’s not at the same venue, those seats can leave me paralysed next time (OK that’s a Mediterranean exaggeration, but you get the point). Also I’m hoping to hear them reverse the current arrangements for their orchestral players that have essentially become part time contractors. An opera company lives and dies on a good quality orchestra that is dedicated and well rehearsed, the current situation at SO seems like the wrong way to go to bring costs down and bridge any budgetary shortcomings. I should not forget to mention the three ladies on my left who brought out a box of Lindor (very appropriate in a way with “Lindoro” on stage) early in Act One and loudly shook it and started eating the contents…I looked on with resentment and then Una Voce came up. Never mind!