The Barber Of Seville, Grand Theatre, Leeds

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The Independent Culture

The usual trouble with constantly re-cycled opera productions is that they cease to be productions. The director has gone, conductors and singers come and go, doing their own thing, and all sense of a coherent interpretation is lost. Of the original conception, only the sets and, with luck, the costumes survive. Opera North's Barber, first seen in 1986, is certainly venerable. But this company does not skimp on revivals, and for this one the original director Giles Havergal was persuaded to return. The gains in vitality and attention to detail are evident in this shrewdly cast and thoroughly entertaining revival.

A special strength of this production is the brilliant translation made by Havergal's collaborator, Robert David MacDonald. Some of the word-play and rhymes are as clever and delightful as anything by WS Gilbert or Stephen Sondheim. It helped that verbal clarity was exceptional throughout the evening, even in most of the complex ensembles. It is a superb vindication of singing comic opera in English.

Havergal's production sets the action on a stage within the stage, with a useful variety of levels. It is watched by an appreciative 19th-century audience in a variety of fetching yet sober costumes. This helps to bring out the degree to which Rossini mocks the conventions of the form he is using, as when Almaviva and Rosina insist on completing their repetitive love duet while Figaro is urging them to make their escape by ladder. We see Bartolo having the ladder taken away.

Individual performances are strong throughout. Deanne Meek's Rosina is suitably feisty and resourceful, though there is sometimes too sharp an edge to her tone. Garry Magee presents a more than usually camp Figaro, a little uncertain in style. His introductory aria did not quite make the impact that it should, and too much accompanying stage business did not help him. I have seen more creepy and sinister Basilios than Richard Angas, despite his black fingerless gloves. Bartolo's house staff deserve a special mention. Carole Wilson makes a very positive impression as Berta, and not only in her one aria. So does Jeremy Peaker as the dotty but totally silent Ambrogio.

Two performances have star quality. There are doubtless more sonorous Bartolos around than Eric Roberts, but I doubt that you could find a more completely characterised one. This pasty-faced, unsmiling Scrooge figure has all the ailments of old age - breathlessness, deafness when convenient and creaky joints - which make his attempt to kneel before Rosina a comical calamity. His performance is the essence of comedy.

For once, the tenor role is not a weak link in the cast. As Almaviva, Nicholas Sales, in his debut with the company, made an understandably tentative start, but soon caught the spirit of the enterprise and sang and acted splendidly. Here is a high tenor with enough body and power in his voice to tackle at least some of the Italian roles convincingly. If Opera North are contemplating a revival of The Elixir of Love or even Rigoletto, they need look no further afield than south Yorkshire.

Throughout the evening the orchestral playing, always clear and lively under the experienced baton of Wyn Davies, was a particular pleasure.

Further performances in Leeds, Nottingham, Newcastle, Salford and Norwich to 11 March

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