The Barber of Seville

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, January 28

Opera AustraliaThe Barber of Seville

Left to right: Warwick Fyfe as Dr Bartolo and Paolo Bordogna as Figaro. Photo: Keith Saunders

Rossini’s comic opera The Barber of Seville, written in 1816 when he was just 24, is a wonderfully silly romp with the anarchic spirit of the narrative fun and games encapsulated in the sparkling score, which is full of catchy but complex melodies.

It’s hard to imagine a production that captures all the hilarity better than this one from Elijah Moshinsky. I’ve seen it several times now and it’s always a laugh-out loud delight. If you need a tonic, give this a go.

First staged by Opera Australia in 1995, and revived here by Hugh Halliday, you’d never believe that the production is 21 years old. Instead, it feels fresh as a daisy.

Adapted from Beaumarchais’ play, the plot revolves around Count Almaviva’s attempts to win the delectable Rosina from under the nose of her aging, rather odious guardian, Dr Bartolo, who wants her for himself. Aided and abetted by the barber Figaro – the go-to man if you need anything sorted – Almaviva enters Dr Bartolo’s house in various disguises and comic mayhem ensues.

Moshinsky has updated the action to the 1920s with boaters, bicycles and Buster Keaton-style shenanigans inspired by the silent movies – an era and style of comedy that suits the opera brilliantly.

The garish, cartoon-bright set by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Dana Granata are a hoot in their own right. Yeargan puts an open house on stage so that you can see into various rooms, upstairs and downstairs, at the same time from Dr Bartolo’s surgery to Rosina’s bedroom and the drawing room. Loudly patterned wallpaper makes an eye-watering statement, while Granata’s equally bright costumes add to the visual fun.

Delicious comic moments abound: a miniature terrace of houses from which small-scale, motorised figures of Bartolo and Rosina emerge as from a cuckoo clock; the barber shop scene with customers (and two theatre ushers) shrieking beneath steaming hot towels only to emerge beautifully coiffured; a bicycle ride through a storm staged like a segment in a silent film; Bartolo’s hapless patients who leave his surgery in worse shape than they arrived; and the police traipsing through Bartolo’s house and squashing into his surgery in Keystone Kops fashion.

There’s so much going on visually it could dwarf a mediocre cast, but the performers assembled here not only have the goods vocally but the acting and comic chops to pull it off brilliantly.

From the second Paolo Bordogna bounds onto stage from the auditorium as Figaro, he charms with his puppyish energy and wonderfully rich baritone. He plays the role to the hilt, always completely in the moment. His facial expressions are priceless, he has the measure of the broad comic style to a tee, and his lithe physicality is matched by his agile voice. He really is a charmer and the ideal Figaro.

Opera AustraliaThe Barber of Seville

Anna Dowsley and Kenneth Tarver. Photo: Keith Saunders

Anna Dowsley, who has established herself playing pants roles such as Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, Siebel in Faust and Tebaldo in Don Carlos, shows that she has the sparkle and charm to be a leading lady. She captures Rosina’s pertness and clear-eyed determination to get what she wants, and sings beautifully, her shining mezzo secure yet flexible.

American tenor Kenneth Tarver has a lovely, smooth voice and a warm stage presence, while Warwick Fyfe is a knockout as the creepy Bartolo (returning to the role, which he played when the production was last staged in 2011). He is a fine comic actor and sings superbly.

There are also impressive performances from David Parkin as Don Basilio, Jane Ede as Bartolo’s housekeeper and Samuel Dundas as Almaviva’s servant Fiorella. Dundas also gets huge laughs as Ambrogio, Bartolo’s silent servant, who shuffles around zombie-like in filthy uniform, a fag hanging from his mouth.

With Maestro Andrea Molina conducting the orchestra at a suitably sprightly pace, you’d be hard pressed to have more fun at the opera. A complete delight.

The Barber of Seville plays at the Sydney Opera House until March 22. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

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Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: Aida

Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquarie’s Point, March 27

Milijana Nikolic and Latonia Moore. Photo: Prudence Upton

Milijana Nikolic and Latonia Moore. Photo: Prudence Upton

The giant, crumbling head of Queen Nefertiti dominating the stage for this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: Aida looks genuinely spectacular in its stunning location and is used to great effect, with a particularly striking image at the end of the production. But with the rest of the spectacle feeling decidedly ad hoc, the opening night of Aida well and truly belonged to American soprano Latonia Moore in the title role.

For its fourth harbour outing, Opera Australia has chosen Verdi’s Aida, which combines lavish spectacle with an intimate love triangle between Egyptian military commander Radames, Ethiopian slave Aida (later revealed to be a Princess) and the jealous Princess Amneris, daughter of the Pharoah.

In the first part, it’s spectacle all the way as director Gale Edwards and designer Mark Thompson fill the stage with ceremonial pomp and bucket-loads of glitz.

The costuming mixes styles and eras (“a world caught between times” says the program): men in contemporary suits and others in Fascist military uniforms, ornately clad priests looking straight out of ancient Egypt, OTT golden gowns for the Egyptian women (dubbed the Kardashian chorus by the cast) in which the singers look rather awkward, and vibrantly coloured, boldly patterned fabrics for the Ethiopians.

There doesn’t seem to be any coherent vision behind it; instead it just looks like a lot of disparate visual elements. Worse, the camp costumes for the dancers look oddly out of place, even crass. There are space age storm troopers in Latex (or some such fabric) with helmets and jackboots who would be right at home in the Mardi Gras parade, can-can girls (yes, really) and ceremonial male dancers whose tight black outfits with chains shout bondage. Apparently they’re jackals, though I couldn’t pick that from my seat near the back. Dancing with golden-clad ballet dancers, it is a low point of the production. Lucas Jervies’ clichéd choreography doesn’t help.

The Aida stage is dominated by a giant head of Queen Nefertiti. Photo: Hamilton Lund

The Aida stage is dominated by a giant head of Queen Nefertiti. Photo: Hamilton Lund

It’s true that the positioning of the priests and soldiers around the stage frequently looks dazzling under Matt Scott’s highly dramatic, coloured lighting, but then a distracting gaudy or camp element will intrude, undercutting the effect.

Oil drums stacked at the back of the stage suggest wealth built on petrol – though this isn’t true of Egypt – but nothing more is done with them. Edwards also includes rows of black coffins, which are set out on stage, each with a single lily on them, in the famous Triumphal March. It’s a powerful image alongside the spoils of war and the spectacle of four camels and fireworks, but the politics of the piece don’t reverberate anywhere near as strongly as promised in pre-publicity.

At the same time, any sense of genuine human intimacy is lost in the first half of the production with Amneris, Aida and Radames frequently singing to each other across acres of stage.

After interval, when things quieten and human emotion is allowed to shine through, the production is much more successful. A stronger, clearer focus on the leading characters, positioned close together centrestage, opens the way for us to engage emotionally.

Even then there is a strange piece of staging when a metal mesh frame rises from the front of the stage (creating sight line issues) and then lowers again later. I think it was meant to suggest the opening and closing of the vault in which Radames is buried alive. However, there is no sense whatsoever of he and Aida being sealed in a dark tomb.

Fortunately Latonia Moore is superb. Singing with great beauty and warmth across her range from a rich, strong bottom register to a glowing top, her gorgeous voice outshines the spectacle. Acting with great conviction, she brings real heart to the production.

As Amneris, Serbian-born mezzo-soprano Milijana Nikolic gives a compelling, passionate performance, convincingly moving from imperiousness to heartfelt, bitter regret.

Walter Fraccaro is less persuasive as Radames. He sings with power but little expressiveness, while his voice showed a tendency to wobble on opening night. Acting-wise he has little charisma and next to no chemistry with Moore.

Among the rest of the cast, Michael Honeyman as Amonasro and David Parkin as Ramphis are particularly impressive.

There are two alternating casts with Daria Masiero, Arnold Rawls, Jacqueline Dark and Warwick Fyfe leading the other.

The spectacle of Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

The spectacle of Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

Verdi’s music is glorious, of course, and the orchestra led by Brian Castles-Onion does it justice, while the sound, though muddy at times, is overall reasonably good.

The production is worth seeing if just for Latonia Moore and the Queen Nefertiti set piece. Some of the staging is undeniably spectacular, but compared to last year’s brilliant, hard-hitting, contemporary production of Madama Butterfly, staged by members of Spanish theatre company La Fura dels Baus, Aida is rather disappointing.

Aida runs until April 26

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 29