Engaging, with an imaginative twist: Rossini’s The Barber of Seville at Opera Holland Park

Engaging, with an imaginative twist: Rossini’s The Barber of Seville at Opera Holland Park
Rossini: The Barber of Seville - Paul Grant - Opera Holland Park 2024 (Photo: Ali Wright)
Rossini: The Barber of Seville – Paul Grant – Opera Holland Park 2024 (Photo: Ali Wright)

Rossini: The Barber of Seville; Paul Grant, Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Heather Lowe, Stephen Gadd, Jihoon Kim, Janis Kelly, director: Cecilia Stinton, conductor: Charlotte Corderoy, City of London Sinfonia; Opera Holland Park
Reviewed 6 June 2024

With Bartolo and Rosina as British ex-pats and a stage full of colour and movement, this was a traditional production with a twist, full of engaging performances and sparkling music

Rossini: The Barber of Seville - Heather Lowe - Opera Holland Park 2024 (Photo: Ali Wright)
Rossini: The Barber of Seville – Heather Lowe – Opera Holland Park 2024 (Photo: Ali Wright)

For all its popularity, Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville has a degree of oddity to it that familiarity tends to disguise. The work’s best known aria is the entrance aria (and only solo moment) for Figaro, a somewhat secondary character in the drama. The work is a comedy, yet lacks the traditional final rondo, usually given to the heroine. This was in fact allocated to Count Almaviva (the work’s original title was Almaviva, o sia L’inutile precauzione), but as Rossini recycled this aria for Cenerentola’s final aria in La Cenerentola, the piece was dropped from Barber thus refocusing the opera and making the ending feel rather more of an ensemble piece than it would have done to original audiences. The work remains, also, a technical challenge, Rossini was writing for singers for whom the elaborate ornamental vocal style was their bread and butter, so the roles are just as challenging as Rossini’s more serious operas.

For their second new production of 2024, Opera Holland Park presented Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in a new production by Cecilia Stinton, designed by Neil Irish, with lighting by Robert Price and movement by Bence Kalo. We caught the production’s second performance on 6 June 2024. Charlotte Corderoy conducted the City of London Sinfonia with Paul Grant as Figaro, Elgan Llŷr Thomas as Count Almaviva, Heather Lowe as Rosina, Stephen Gadd as Doctor Bartolo, Jihoon Kim as Don Basilio, Janis Kelly as Berta and Jack Holton as Fiorello.

Stinton and Irish gave us a traditional setting, but with a twist. We were still in Spain, though in the later 19th century whilst Doctor Bartolo and Rosina were English. The text was tweaked slightly, and Stephen Gadd had great fun speaking Italian with a very proper English accent when talking to the servants. The result gave an added layer to the comedy, with Gadd as a pompous British academic and Heather Lowe making Rosina something more of an English rose, albeit with hidden thorns.

Irish’s imaginative set started with Rosina’s balcony on stage and a cafe in the square on the fore stage, and this set remained fixed for the whole of Act One. For Act Two, things were reversed, the square outside was on stage and Bartolo’s living room on the fore stage. All this space meant that Stinton was able to fill the opera with lots of local colour, with plenty of comings and goings from the inhabitants. This could have been distracting, but the solo performances were so strong that the local colour never pulled focus.

There was perhaps, the suggestion that Stinton did not quite trust the work (Act One is notably long, lasting around 100 minutes or so here), but the end result was to firmly put this story in a milieu, and an engaging one at that, rather than having it played out in isolation. Though movement director Bence Kalo was credited in the programme, generally Stinton seems to have preferred stylised naturalism for staging the large-scale ensembles though the end of Act One seemed to tax Stinton and Kalo’s fund of ideas, but then it is exceptionally long. 

Rossini: The Barber of Seville - Stephen Gadd - Opera Holland Park 2024 (Photo: Ali Wright)
Rossini: The Barber of Seville – Stephen Gadd – Opera Holland Park 2024 (Photo: Ali Wright)

Lowe made a poised, elegant Rosina. Perhaps rather less the spitfire than usual, but Lowe’s account of ‘Una voce poco fa’ revealed a killer technique that gave plenty of enjoyment whilst revealing more of Rosina’s inner self. The lesson aria in Act Two was equally dazzling and great fun too, whilst Lowe was poignant in the moment when Gadd’s Bartolo convinces Rosina that Lindoro has duped her.

Perhaps not the most natural bel canto stylist, Elgan Llŷr Thomas took a robust approach to the more elaborate of the Count’s ornamental lines but made up for this with the winning personality he created. This Count was rather less annoying than usual, whilst Thomas brought out the engaging side to his character whilst also having great fun with the comedy.

Paul Grant had the audience in the palm of his hand from the very opening of ‘Largo al factotum’, delivering a vivid musical experience along side a vibrant personality that was a lovely feature of his performance throughout the opera. Grant was equally engaging in the ensembles, and he, Thomas and Lowe made their trio in Act Two a real delight both dramatically and musically.

Rossini: The Barber of Seville - Elgan Llŷr Thomas - Opera Holland Park 2024 (Photo: Ali Wright)
Rossini: The Barber of Seville – Elgan Llŷr Thomas – Opera Holland Park 2024 (Photo: Ali Wright)

Stephen Gadd’s Doctor Bartolo was less of a buffoon than usual, and perhaps all the more dangerous for it. Inclined to stand on his dignity, Gadd’s Bartolo was a comic creation that used character more than physical comedy and character rooted in the music. Gadd’s delivery of Bartolo’s Act One aria was engaging, and through Gadd showed himself deft with Bartolo’s patter yet always with that self-importance.

Jihoon Kim as Don Basilio was nicely understated with his calumny aria, making it slow burn yet reaching the climax just right and showcasing Kim’s nicely burnished, dark tone. Janis Kelly had great fun as Berta, a near constant presence on stage from the overture, Kelly had a lovely understated sense of physical comedy and delivered a terrific account of Berta’s Act Two aria commenting on the crazy goings on.

Jack Holton made fine work of Fiorello, not for the first time making you regret the way the character entirely disappears. Two members of the Opera Holland Park chorus Dragoș Andrei Ionel and Robert Garland played Ambrogio and the Officer, and Ionel in particular had great fun with this incarnation of Ambrogio as a stiff British servant!

Rossini: The Barber of Seville - Opera Holland Park 2024 (Photo: Ali Wright)
Rossini: The Barber of Seville – Opera Holland Park 2024 (Photo: Ali Wright)

The men of the Opera Holland Park chorus were hard working indeed as not only did they contribute finely to the opening and closing scenes of Act One, but they were ubiquitous in providing the local colour with which Stinton populated the stage.

In the pit, Charlotte Corderoy conducted a lithe and incisive account of the score, with the City of London Sinfonia playing Tony Burke’s orchestral reduction. There was plenty to enjoy here, and she did well with the traffic policeman role that the conductor becomes in the big ensembles, particularly when the cast is careering around the stage in front of the orchestra. Corderoy also entered into the fun of things dramatically, Grant’s Figaro threatened to snip off her pony tail, and in Act Two she gave way to Thomas’ Almaviva during the lesson scene.

Rossini: The Barber of Seville - Stephen Gadd, Paul Grant - Opera Holland Park 2024 (Photo: Ali Wright)
Rossini: The Barber of Seville – Stephen Gadd, Paul Grant – Opera Holland Park 2024 (Photo: Ali Wright)

That the cast and orchestra were having fun was a big feature of this performance. Disciplined fun, for sure, but their enjoyment came over and Stinton’s interpretation of the piece successfully diffused some of the stereotypes without doing violence to the plot. The production is also being used for Opera Holland Park’s Young Artist performances and it will be interesting to see how a younger generation of singers responds to the work.

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