Just as enjoyable two centuries on
By Owen James
For two performances only this December, Victorian Opera have brought one of the most famous operas to life at the Melbourne Recital Centre – The Barber Of Seville. Now over 200 years old, Rossini’s comedy begins when affluent Count Almaviva disguises himself as poor student Lindoro to charm Rosina, ward of villainous Doctor Bartolo. The Barber Of Seville himself, Figaro, helps Almaviva to woo and rescue Rosina in exchange for fiscal reward.
Direction from Elizabeth Hill-Cooper ensures the limited stage space (what remains in front of the orchestra) is used effectively, with action constant but never cluttered. This is billed as a “semi-staged concert”, so movement remains simple for the most part, allowing us to become fully immersed in Rossini’s timeless music. English surtitles are projected above the stage, in time with the often rapid-fire original Italian lyrics.
Experiencing this score played to perfection by a full orchestra is an incomparable experience. The unmistakable overture is a journey of its own (arguably the finest overture ever composed), followed by soaring arias and grand motifs that heighten the simple comedic, romantic themes to an epic scale. Musical director Richard Mills has allowed Rossini’s music to both breathe and maintain pace. No note is ever out of place thanks to his keen conducting and Orchestra Victoria, who obviously adore playing through this classic (and are balanced naturally thanks to the beautiful acoustics of the Recital Centre – no vocal mics are needed and not a note is lost!). Thunder sheets are used to great dramatic effect by the percussion section during a chaotic second act downpour.
José Carbó as the suave titular barber Figaro is a delight at every turn. His voice carries every delicate inflection and grandiose flourish with ease, eliciting many a “bravo!” from captivated audience members. Brenton Spiteri delivers an impressive vocal performance as Count Almaviva, effortlessly mining endless texture and beauty from every note of Rossini’s often difficult score. The pair are almost always together throughout their scheming, a witty, sharp duo that keep us enthralled and giggling with bursts of crafty commedia dell’arte as each romantic attempt is foiled.
Warwick Fyfe is the menacing villain Doctor Bartolo, sternly commanding the stage with an austere but ruffled presence. Whether barking reprimands or being undermined by gleeful Almaviva, Fyfe expertly plays the straight man at every turn (even when adorned with a beard of real shaving cream). Rosina’s cheeky and brave spirit is captured by Chiara Amarù, proving that there is a lot more to this ward than a mere damsel in distress. Amarù’s vocals are mesmerising throughout, her classical soprano tones drifting seamlessly across difficult arias. Paolo Pecchioli, man of a million faces, completes the key pieces of this comic puzzle as greedy Don Basilio, an audience favourite with every rubberfaced appearance.
Congratulations to Victorian Opera for a superb rendition of this musical and vocal rollercoaster, a tremendous feat accomplished with superb casting that undeniably deserves a much longer season!
Photography by Nick Hanson