The Barber of Seville, English Touring Opera, Hackney Empire


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The Independent Culture

English Touring Opera shows often embody the old adage about necessity and invention. Portability is the key: their sets must fit in the back of a van, and be shoehorned into a wide variety of spaces.

When the curtain rises on Rhys Jarman’s opening set for Thomas Guthrie’s new production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, it couldn’t be simpler: four house-fronts with advent-calendar windows, a ladder, a silhouetted city beneath a midnight-blue sky, and a cross-faced moon looking down. And here the penny drops in a way it never does with the opulently stylish version currently in rep at Covent Garden: this little world positively drips with the claustrophobia which is driving pretty young Rosina round the bend with frustration.

Count Almaviva (Nicholas Sharratt) and his unruly musicians come on like figures out of Gilbert and Sullivan, their gestures choreographed with comic precision, while Figaro (Grant Doyle) makes an entry reminiscent of the Major-General in the Pirates of Penzance. But on the first night there was something missing at the start: Paul McGrath’s tempi in the overture were sluggish in the extreme, and for a while this lack of pace seemed to infect the singing as well. Sharratt produced an engaging vibrato (and perfect diction), but in his first few scenes he was behind the beat and at times slightly flat; when Rosina (Kitty Whately) came on song, her sound had a chaste beauty but somehow lacked fizz. Only when Andrew Slater’s larger-than-life Doctor Bartolo appeared – followed by Alan Fairs’s splendidly grotesque Don Basilio - did the pace hot up, but once it had, the evening never flagged for a moment.

This was Rossini as sit-com, its jokes and ironies boldly semaphored for audiences unfamiliar with the plot, but still true to the original. Guthrie made lovely comedy out of Bartolo’s cack-handed way with tooth-extractors and amputation saws; as the young lovers’ flirtations grew progressively more carnal, Bartolo’s cuckoldry assumed the mantle of pathos. When the world descended into chaos at the end of the first act, everything – singing, movement, lighting, even the angle of the horizon – seemed to tilt crazily. Sharratt emerged in every sense the hero: a chameleon in manner, movements worthy of commedia dell’arte, and a commanding vocal presence.