What a difference a tenor makes. Joining 2010 stars Phillip Calcagno and Sally-Anne Russell, lively young tenor Brenton Spiteri completes a terrific trio whose antics are as much of a joy to watch as their singing is a pleasure to hear.
Making a welcome return after five years, Melbourne Opera’s delightfully daffy 2006 production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville remains one of their mostly artistically satisfying. Creative design enhances the humour, and inventive direction creates an unpredictable air that fits the desperate disguises and deceptions of the plot perfectly.
Director Hugh Halliday again presides over the mayhem with a judicious eye, allowing modern references to gain quick laughs without overpowering the original text. If there is a slight lack of polish to proceedings here and there, it is all part of the madcap fun. The humour is outlandish, but is always kept well clear of going over the top. A great many duets are performed straight, relying solely on the wonderful vocal talents of the charismatic singers.
An inspired addition to the modern touches this time is the playing of sneaky snatches of tunes on the keyboard (providing harpsichord sound) during recitative. Dr Bartolo has his very own leitmotif as Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk” accompanies his early entrances. From “La Cucaracha” to Mission Impossible to the Pachelbel Canon, these moments are all the funnier for how briefly they are heard. Listen closely for the very witty use of a snippet of Musetta’s “Quando m’en vo” when Rosina claims to have hurt her foot.
Conductor Greg Hocking’s tempi are on the safe side, but this allows Melbourne Opera Orchestra to play Rossini’s cherished score with clear precision. Act two is a little livelier, as musicians and singers alike grow in confidence.
Singing the opera in English is a mixed blessing. Excellent diction facilitates easy understanding of the plot but also tends to highlight the (deliberately) repetitive nature of the libretto.
Anna Cordingley’s two-storey set begins with a fish eye view of the street before rotating to reveal the interior of the residence of cantankerous miser Dr Bartolo. Purple detailing on props stands out attractively against the black and white background. Adapted costuming, not attributed to Cordingley this time, also adds to the visual flair of the production.
Lighting designer Scott Allan makes a nice distinction between daytime and twilight, but struggles to portray the thunderstorm convincingly. The stage is often bathed in rich, warm shades of light.
The romantic warmth of Spiteri’s lovely tenor voice brings to mind the young David Hobson. Spiteri’s pure, clear high notes range from delicate piano to ringing out over the company during ensemble pieces. While his melismatic phrases sound just a little forced, though very accurate, experience will perhaps bring a more relaxed, legato technique. Deftly flipping back and forth from cheeky comic grin to noble romantic expression, Spiteri easily wins the audience’s affection. During Count Almaviva’s final aria, “Hear this! If you resist me now” the audience listen with silent rapt attention, particularly during the a capella section.
Calcagno sparkles with merry confidence as the dapper Figaro, singing the nimble baritone role with deceptive ease. A strong team player, Calcagno enjoys his time in the spotlight but equally allows his castmates to shine.
Mezzo-soprano Russell is in delightful form as dear Rosina, conveying the comedy with a twinkle in her eye and singing with a golden, expressive tone. When the combination of Russell, Calcagno and Spiteri are in full flight the opera really soars. Singing in English, their work demonstrates the best of what Gilbert and Sullivan were striving for in their comic operettas.
Roger Howell is a good sport as the unfortunate Dr Bartolo, cheerfully playing the exasperated straight man to allow the comedy to roll along. Jodie Debono scores with Berta’s breakout aria in act two, “Here’s a man whose years afflict him.”
Terrific fun with a score to match, The Barber of Seville is recommended for newcomers and aficionados alike.
The Barber of Seville plays selected dates at Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne until 3 July, and plays at Alexander Theatre, Monash university on 10 July 2015.
Photos: Robin Hall