Spanish fly in the operatic ointment

OPERA English Touring Opera Sadler's Wells Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture
Rossini's a bit of a sadist, forever poking and prodding his singers to impossible exertions, only to laugh at how ludicrous they are, their crazy vocal apparatus divorced from all physical function. That's what makes The Barber of Seville so maliciously amusing. There are traces of disembodiment and sadism in Martin Duncan's new production for English Touring Opera, premiered at Sadler's Wells last week. Francis O'Connor's set first presents Seville's walls as a gallery of portraits displaying bits of women's bodies. We glimpse Almaviva's first meeting with Rosina: in bright sunlight, the libidinal energy flows free. Suddenly the walls spin, the light darkens, suggesting that, for all the ejaculatory exuberance of Rossini's music, there is something frigid in its spasms.

Later we see Rosina enchained by a distinctly sadistic Bartolo. As Act 1 climaxes in an ensemble of sublime ridiculousness, Duncan jerks his singers about like puppets, and when the Act 2 storm arrives, the world falls to pieces. This Rossini is not the conventionally comfortable comic but someone more sinister. Which doesn't prevent this Barber being amusing, if not consistently so.

Under Jonathan Darlington, the slimline orchestra rendered the overture leaden, although textures brightened as the evening progressed. Such a small ensemble will always struggle to achieve the authentic Rossinian bounce, nor were the singers wholly comfortable with the vocal acrobatics; but you could say the same about some of the world's most illustrious singers. There was still plenty to enjoy.

Adrian Clarke's Figaro, oily as brilliantine in Edwardian dress, is a barber to sell you something for the weekend whether you want it or not; and although Andrew Burden seemed reluctant to take his eyes off the conductor, his light tenor made Almaviva both ardent and bumbling. Debra Stuart had the gutsy chest register required by Rosina, and Jonathan May got Bartolo's quivering self-righteousness exactly. Enjoyable cameos and clear delivery of David Parry's economical translation completed a promising show.

The other opera on ETO's tour is Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice. Some will find Stephen Medcalf's staging intolerably tendentious, with its modern dress, fragmented and vertiginous sets and deliberate subversion of the plot. Here, Love (Anne Byrne) is a dippy, capricious socialite; Eurydice has a split personality, half of her (Sarah Barron) dancing, half of her (Elizabeth Woollett, in good voice) singing, neither managing to make her a whole woman.

Meanwhile Orpheus uses his art as a prop when the emotional stakes are high. In the end, music and memories are all he has, and they are not enough. Despite white-out in the lower register, the counter-tenor Stephen Wallace gave a powerful performance in a terrifying role. The chorus was ragged in ensemble and tentative in movement, and the orchestra under Martin Andr was not always as emotionally charged as Gluck demands, but this honest and thoughtful show deserves a larger audience than it got at Sadler's Wells.

n ETO on tour to 3 June. Details: 0171-820 1131

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