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S & H Opera Review

Rossini, ‘The Barber of Seville’ English National Opera at the Coliseum cond David Parry, November 1st 2002. (ME)

 

London’s two opera houses are at the moment providing the most dramatic contrast of their parallel lives, in so many ways; last weekend I was at ‘the other place’ for ‘Wozzeck,’ and this weekend here: you could not wish for starker evidence of what privilege and money can do in the case of the ROH, and what a poorer institution has to ‘make do with’ in the case of the ENO. The Royal Opera was able to mount a new production of Berg’s challenging work, the stage swarming with stars, the pit resounding with rejuvenated players under a stellar new Music Director, and the whole was given in sparkling, not to say glitzy surroundings. The ENO was staging its eighth revival of Jonathan Miller’s production of what is arguably the most popular opera in the repertoire, the stage filled mostly with the promising rather than the stellar, the pit sounding a little weary, and the whole was given in dusty, falling-to-pieces surroundings.

And yet…. and yet…. covered in scaffolding and polythene though it may be, awkward to attend though it is at the present time, Friday night showed the Coliseum bravely providing, in the most trying circumstances, an evening of great musical pleasure to an audience which, by the sound of the delighted chortles at every little comic gesture, was largely experiencing this production, and perhaps even this opera, for the first time. Not only that, but a kind of ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ seems to have infused the house, with everyone pulling together as if to compensate for the temporary shabbiness – not to mention the fact that, if you happen to feel peckish before the performance or in the interval, you may obtain a variety of snacks, somewhat contrasting to the other house, where, in response to my request for a piece of cake with my coffee at 6.20, I was told ‘Sorry Madam, we have nothing left at all, unless you have ordered it.’ One could, of course, have quaffed Champagne at £9 a flute…

Musically speaking, this was a pleasant rather than riveting evening, with much to be enjoyed from a mainly young cast. The overture seemed to lack a little verve, as though they had had enough of it all, but as the evening went on, the orchestra seemed to take heart from the audience’s response, and produced some lively, zestful playing. The singing was varied in quality, with Victoria Simmonds’ Rosina and Andrew Shore’s Bartolo being the best of the bunch. Ms Simmonds is either a dead ringer for Cecilia Bartoli or she has been artfully made up to look that way, so it’s a bit disconcerting to watch her on stage since she also has a whole fistful of Ms. Bartoli’s mannerisms. Her singing, however, is not at all disconcerting, being mellifluous in production, expressive in interpretation and confident in articulation; ‘Una voce poco fa’ went very well indeed, and she sang the ‘lesson’ aria with flair and some beauty of tone.

Shore is such a stalwart of the ENO that I almost feel I know what he’s going to do before he does it, either vocally or dramatically, and he generally turns in an assured, rounded, absolutely committed performance, whether he is playing Dulcamara, Alfonso or Bartolo, and this evening provided yet another of his exercises in comic professionalism, although he seems to have allowed a few Frankie Howerd – style bits of business to intrude. He delivers such gems as ‘Opera was opera, and men were sopranos’ with perfect timing, and his singing is musical, italianate and well projected. Indeed, you could hear every single word he sang, as was also the case with Ms Simmonds, but that was not true of much of the rest of the cast.

Colin Lee and Leslie John Flanagan are both young to be taking on roles such as Almaviva and Figaro, and one assumes that they will both grow into their parts, but on this showing neither really succeeded in matching the last revival’s pairing of Toby Spence and Christopher Maltman. Lee has a very light, small, lyric tenor, used with taste and musicality but only seldom filling out the phrases as they need to be, and his acting, though not without charm, is in need of some polish. Flanagan made a brave stab at Figaro, with a commendable ‘Largo al Factotum,’ but he too seems in need of some more definition in the role.

It is almost exactly a year since I wrote a rave review of Jonathan Lemalu’s performance in the RCM’s production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ and since then he seems to be everywhere; the natural comic gifts he displayed as Bottom were certainly shown here to advantage as Basilio, but the singing was a little soft in focus, with some want of definition in the phrasing and some rather indefinite diction. The smaller parts were all taken with style by company stalwarts, and the chorus of musicians / soldiers was as delightfully ridiculous as ever.

As for the production, it has stood the test of time remarkably well; those olive-ochre walls and filigree railings still evoke a side street in Seville, that image – filled line of cabinets still looks a perfect backdrop for the shenanigans in the Bartolo household, and the comic business has been neatly directed for this revival by William Relton, losing very little of the panache of Jonathan Miller’s original staging, and the whole is beautifully lit (original design by Tom Mannings, revived by Kevin Sleep).

The overall standard of such a revival bodes well for the season to come; it may be, necessarily, a somewhat truncated and revival – heavy one, but on this showing that is no reason to shun the Coliseum whilst it undergoes its much-needed facelift. I eagerly anticipate next week’s ‘Xerxes,’ one of the company’s most individual and glorious achievements, and the subsequent new productions of ‘Tosca’ and ‘The Trojans.’

 

Melanie Eskenazi

 


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