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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South Pacific

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, September 12

Lisa McCune and Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Photo: Jeff Busby

Lisa McCune and Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Photo: Jeff Busby

When Opera Australia’s South Pacific opened last year it became the most successful production in the history of the Sydney Opera House – and so it’s back, by popular demand, with Lisa McCune and Teddy Tahu Rhodes reprising their starring roles.

They are joined by several new cast members: Gyton Grantley as Luther Billis, Christine Anu as Bloody Mary and Blake Bowden as Lieutenant Cable, all of them terrific.

With its memorable songs and stirring story, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical is one of the greatest all of time and Bartlett Sher’s magnificent production, which originated at New York’s Lincoln Centre in 2008, really does make for an enchanted evening.

First performed in 1949, in the wake of World War II, the show’s exploration of war, class and, in particular, racism was radical in its day.

The musical is set on a South Pacific island where the Americans are doing strategic battle with the Japanese. At its heart is Ensign Nellie Forbush (Lisa McCune), a “hick” nurse from Little Rock who falls in love with French plantation owner Emile de Becque (Teddy Tahu Rhodes) but must confront her prejudice when she discovers he has fathered two children with a Polynesian woman.

Restaging his production for OA on Michael Yeargan’s elegant sets, Sher gives full rein to the show’s romance and exuberant production numbers but balances this with a gritty truthfulness, ensuring that the show’s serious themes still hit home. Keeping the staging relatively simple, he puts the focus firmly on the characters and the human story they tell rather than razzle-dazzle.

McCune is lovely as Nellie. The warmth, sparkle, playfulness and emotional depth she brings to the role is utterly beguiling, keeping us on Nellie’s side despite her self-confessed small-mindedness. The final scene, when she moves beyond this to accept Emile and his children, is deeply moving while her earlier, high-spirited rendition of I’m Gonna Watch That Man Right Outa My Hair is musical theatre at its most joyous. Her bright voice sounds stronger this time around; it really is a stunning performance.

Appearing in his first musical, Rhodes, who has an international opera career, is sensational as Emile. The role was originally written for opera’s Ezio Pinza and Rhodes’s beautiful, burnished bass-baritone is so rich and powerful that his renditions of Some Enchanted Evening and This Nearly Was Mine are utterly thrilling. What’s more, the chemistry between him and McCune sizzles.

The subplot concerns the educated, courageous Lieutenant Joe Cable (Blake Bowden) who falls in love with Tonkinese girl Liat (Celia Yuen)  – the daughter of Bloody Mary – but knows he could never take her back to America as his wife. Bowden gives a sensitive portrayal, making Cable’s conflicting emotions convincing and understandable, and sings smoothly though his voice sounded slightly tight at the top of his register on opening night.

Making an impressive musical theatre debut, Grantley gives a wonderful robust, endearingly comic performance as the rascally seabee Billis who is sweet on Nellie, while Anu brings plenty of fiery grunt to Bloody Mary in a nuanced performance.

There is strong support from the rest of the company and the energetic ensemble, while the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra’s performance of the glorious score, under conductor Vanessa Scammell, is a delight.

All in all, this is musical theatre of the highest order, justifying its inclusion in an opera season.

South Pacific plays at the Sydney Opera House until November 2 then in Perth, November 10 – December 6 and Adelaide, December 29 – January 12

Edited versions of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on September 15, 2013 and in August 2012