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First Night: Such pain, such sadness, such a mess

Unharmonious days for the Royal Opera. Homeless and impecunious, its 'Merry Widow' was universally derided. All would be redeemed with 'The Barber of Seville'. Or would it? Edward Seckerson witnessed a disastrous pantomime of a production utterly at war
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Sooty and Sweep pop up in the Act 1 finale. That's a first. And a last, I shouldn't wonder. While Rossini's jibbering protagonists sing of madness and mayhem, Nigel Lowery, director and designer of the Royal Opera's new Barber of Seville, spills his wild and wacky imagination all over the Shaftesbury Theatre stage. It's a messy business. The world turns on its head, policemen turn cat burglars, Wotan's magic fire turns hellish (Lowery was the designer of the Richard Jones Ring, remember), taxidermic turtledoves turn tail, and the set buckles and tilts, a pantomime bear careering through the debris. Uproar. Not even Rossini can get in the way.

Ah, yes, Rossini. Remember him? He's a problem, you see, a constant irritation to Lowery, because there is order in his anarchy. That Act 1 finale is a model of controlled chaos - and there's the irony. It's all in the mind. The trouble with Lowery's mind is the madness in its method. He's a designer with a penchant for the surreal. His shows look like they've come straight off his drawing-board and onto the stage. Characters look, move, behave (or should) like his subversive scribblings, and that requires the kind of physical skill that most operatic ensembles cannot give him. His Barber begins with a nightmarish take on the Spanish serenade, a small regiment of unkempt waiters, identical in every detail, the semaphoric brandishing of their guitars serving more as a threat than a promise. It should be very funny, but it isn't, and it isn't because it's not sharp enough, slick enough, precisioned enough. There's a lesson for Lowery in Rossini, but he's too busy with his own agenda to take heed of it.

And what is his agenda? To make free with his visual and mental associations. Sometimes he'll take his cues rather too literally from Rossini and his librettist Sterbini, sometimes not at all. Don't ask where the young man juggling apples during the storm music comes from, or why. But note well Rosina's contention that happiness is brought about "with pain and sadness". True enough, there is a dark side to the opera, peopled as it is with self-serving schemers. But paint it too blackly, give it too much edge, and you re-write it. There's a grubby, grotesque, sadistic ambience to Lowery's work and it fatally opposes, undercuts, the buffo charm of the opera.

Sometimes he gets it right. You may argue that Rosina's celebrated aria "Una voce poco fa" needs no further embellishment, that when she sings "I am a quiet girl full of respect" the coloratura tells you otherwise. But the devil in Lowery has her done up like a tasty (or tasteless, depending on taste) 1950s tart, sweetly, demurely reaching into the wings first to don a boxing glove, then to grasp an axe. Point taken. Appearances can be deceptive. Don't mess with this lady. It is wacky, it is funny, because in that moment it's as clean and lethal as a cartoon exclamation. Likewise Almaviva's "disguises": the drunken soldier, a cardboard cut- out; "Don Alonso", a half-and-half costume, Alonso/Almaviva depending upon which way he's facing. Then there's louring Don Basilio, the mother of mobsters, given to sneaky entrances - through the floor or through the ceiling, as is his wont.

If all this sounds rather better than it actually is, that's because Lowery doesn't know when to stop. Multiply the above tenfold. The overkill of business is crucifying, just as his futile attempts to have his cast physicalise the rhythm and nervous tics of the music (including, inevitably, a spoof on Peter Sellars' quasi-Baroque hand-jiving) invariably come a cropper. Untidy, effortful - these are not words one could ever associate with Rossini. So, at close of play, what do we have? A production, a cast which too often looks and behaves like it's at war with the piece. Roberto Frontali's Figaro is all hard edge and no geniality, his strenuously aspirated coloratura nudging him closer to the Barber of Fleet Street than Seville; Donald Maxwell's manic Doctor Bartolo looks and sounds like he's stepped straight out of Wozzeck; Sergej Aleksashkin's Basilio is blackly impressive but without the gleeful relish. Paul Austin Kelly's Almaviva somehow manages to keep his head while all around him are losing theirs, his elegant singing deliciously at odds with his cheap gigolo suit; and the Romanian mezzo Carmen Oprisanu is a winning Rosina, knowing of voice and manner. Let's not forget Yvonne Howard's Berta, the housekeeper, bemused by "this love which sends people wild" but quick to discard her housecoat and marigold gloves for a silken bunny suit.

The workmanlike conductor, Antonello Allemandi, could do nothing, alas, to disguise the bone-dry, unflattering, unlovely sound of the Shaftesbury Theatre. It's a deadly place for opera. So unforgiving. As were the audience. Nigel Lowery was roundly booed. He's too much of a rebel to expect otherwise.

In rep to 6 Dec, Shaftesbury Theatre, 210 Shaftesbury Ave, London WC2. Booking: 0171-304 4000