It’s NOT a comic opera. Rossini’s The Barber of Seville is era-changing. Don’t you know? It is based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ famous trilogy of Figaro plays – first staged in 1775 – that ignited revolutionary dynamite under les right-thinking sans culottes in 1789.
It was the prequel for Mozart’s earlier opera, The Marriage of Figaro, which added lyrical oomph to Beaumarchais’ nitro-glycerine in 1786.
Beaumarchais and Mozart having inflamed 18th century Europe with French revolutionary zeal, Rossini took on the role of agent provocateur in the 19th. His opera fomented the revolutions of 1820, 1830, 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871.
Hang on a minute. Where’s the evidence the revolting masses were ever regular playgoers or opera buffs, rushing from front stalls aux barricades, perhaps fuelled by too much interval booze? It is a good story. But, it’s bollocks.
The Barber of Seville IS a comic opera. Sure, the plot is founded on the conniving, elderly Dr Bartolo’s politically incorrect plan to marry his young ward, Rosina, ultimately thwarted at every turn by the wily factotum, Figaro. Very du jour.
But the aristocrat in the action, count Almaviva, in love with Rosina in the guise of an impoverished student, Lindoro, gets the gal with Figaro’s help and a conveniently missing ladder. How revolutionary is that?
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In recent years, to add unnecessary political narrative to one of the funniest operas in the repertoire, programme notes have become increasingly ponderous in hefting the revolutionary impact myth. Sharp social commentary, deflating the pompous, shafting abuse of power, yes. An inspiration to Mao Tsé-Tung’s 1966 cultural revolution? That’s going it a bit, even for polemically adroit Figaro.
At Nevill Holt, director Anna Morrissey delivered a side-splitter, centring on Rosina and her right to liberty, equality, and free choice as a woman. Her opera is an anti-patriarchal romp, aimed at presumptuous empowered manipulators, who still seem to stalk every corridor of the House of Commons and the Carlton Club today.
The plot is familiar, but for those seeking to refresh memories on the detail, please do so with a concise Opera Philadelphia synopsis, here.
Key to this production’s success is Morrissey’s experience as a movement director. From the beginning, there was fluent action. The opening scene, serenading Lindoro (remember, really Almaviva) under Rosina’s window with a hired mariachi band, benefitted from elevating each of the players to an individual comic role.
They exchanged cigarettes, some grandstanded, others mooched. One chorus member, baritone, William Kyle, was tasked with the old triangle gag. Constantly counting down to make his entry, he muffed it time and time again and never did get to hit that bloody triangle.
At the after-party, I congratulated him on his off-centre, attention-catching comedic skills. His budding career at the Royal Northern College of Music has included the roles of The Protector – Written on Skin, Dandini – La Cenerentola and Guglielmo – Cosi fan tutte. I’m looking forward to seeing him in action again as part of the 2022 cohort of Wexford Opera Festival’s young artist programme, Wexford Factory, in October.
Kyle is not yet represented by an agent. My strong advice to any who are reading – get him on your books. Truth be told, all the six strong chorus were excellent, from schools across the country, such as Tom Deazley, a tenor from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. But the other five didn’t have triangles.
The full cast list is here. All excellent voices, sharp acting ability and a reminder of the depth of talent on offer from the coming generation of performers.
Morrissey previously directed Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream at Nevill Holt in 2019 and knows how to make best use of the restricted stage space. So, she and designer Alex Berry did not overload the set with elaborate period furniture.
Scene changes were slick, moving from balcony to house interior, in seconds. And the fateful ladder, removed by Dr Bartolo to prevent the young lover’s escape, but confining them to the house where they could be married by the notary, sung by Deazley, was kept in view, elevated to a leitmotif.
And rightly so, as it is central to an insider joke. The original title of the opera was The Useless Precaution – referring to the failed ladder removal – because in 1816, the time of the premiere, Giovanni Paisiello’s The Barber of Seville had already been hugely popular for thirty years. Rossini changed the title only on Paisiello’s death later that year.
The Rossini premiere was a disaster. The Paisiello mob – affronted at Rossini’s poaching attempt – booed, intimidated members of the cast, causing miscues and onstage accidents. As in Downing Street at Boris Johnson’s defenestration statement, a cat wandered, oblivious, onstage, stealing the limelight.
Rossini threw a sicky for the second performance, but absent the saboteurs, the audience listened and loved it. They even turned up outside his house to cheer him and the rest is history.
Worldwide performances, a permanent slot in the repertoire, a 1944 film, many tee shirts and a best-selling brand of ladder. OK. I made up the bit about the ladder.
Nevill Holt is a haven for summer opera. David Ross, the Carphone Warehouse magnate whose home it is, allows operagoers free range over the property and gardens. Tended by head gardener, Andy Bretherick, for seven years, the Italian Garden is a miracle of microclimate management.
The scent of English roses pervades, nineteen holm oaks – re-sited there – flourish. Rare species are encouraged. Californian Tree Poppies (that will be the Fried Egg Poppy for vulgar readers) proliferate. It is a wonderful setting for pre-opera and interval rambles.
The 400-seat capacity means little risk of overcrowding. The atmosphere is of a relaxed country house party. No Glyndebourne elbowing for prime picnic spots in the shade.
Ross’ sculptures – horse head rearing from the ground, over life-size Bryn Terfel (imagine that!) – have been added to this year with a collection of works by Luke Alen-Buckley who works with stone in the form of glacial erratics, which emerge from the ice as spherical boulders. Alen-Buckley’s signature touch is to form a hole in the rock, a means of glimpsing a world beyond.
“My holes afford the viewer the opportunity to create their own narrative about what isn’t there as much as, what is”, says the artist. I haven’t a clue what any of that means. Too “woo-woo” for me. But they caught the setting sun prettily enough.
I found myself sitting next to Joanne Hoareau, operations director of The Ross Foundation home to a wide range of projects assisting with access to the arts and encouraging students in their path to professional artist. It is a valiant attempt to plug the gap caused by the depressing sunset of music in the educational curriculum.
She was keen to highlight the enthusiasm of students from local schools, when asked to participate in rehearsals. Every effort is made to bring David Ross Education Trust (DRET) Academies into productions. The power of music is being brought to bear on many young lives in this admirable project.
If I were to be appointed Minister for Levelling Up in Penny Mordaunt’s government – she has momentum, which will outpace Rishi Sunak’s slick and overproduced start in the end, and the Tory party in the country loves her – I would head immediately to Nevill Holt to see how frothy aspiration can be turned to life-enhancing reality.
Sadly, this is unlikely, so I shall return next year for the opera. An unmissable fixture in any music fan’s summer calendar. My wife, not a regular opera attendee, sang its praises. And not just for the happy length of the dinner interval and the quality of the catering. No praise comes higher than that.