First performed in 1816 and enthusiastically received from the second night onwards, Rossini’s comic opera – which still ranks 7th on Operabase’s list of most-performed operas, just ahead of Mozart’s Figaro -is compellingly reproduced for the opening of Opera Holland Park’s 2014 season. Although slow to warm up, the production will leave you in no doubt by the end as to why this is still one of the most popular operas today.
Against a simple period set façade – Rosina’s window at the centre and an exposed lighting rig above – Walden conducts the overture with verve.
The first act takes a while to get going in terms of comedy. A group of musicians in period costume wheels out a piano for the accompaniment of Almaviva’s (Nico Darmanin) serenade to Rosina (Kitty Whately) in company of a random drunk. Darmanin, despite his elegant bel canto voice, seems unsure what to do with himself, lacking stage presence, while Jonathan Veira is fittingly flustered as a hideously-toupee’d Doctor Bartolo.
The fun really begins with the entrance of the powerful-voiced and commanding Figaro (Nicolas Lester), during whose charismatic ‘Largo al factotum’ wigs are thrust upon unwitting passers-by with appropriate comic high-note-timing.
The interior of Bartolo’s house is revealed as the cast draw back two halves of the set. Amongst scattered medicinal oddities Whately delivers ‘Una voce poco fa’ beautifully to a skeleton which she dresses, an unexpected but effective choice of direction.
Allenby, originally cast as Basilio, was sick, so Crawley, who also plays Fiorello, took up the role and ‘La calunnia’ with relish. He shines as the pompous music teacher in an hilarious wig (they were having fun in that department).
Further high jinks and complications ensue, in which a highlight is Figaro’s duet with Rosina, the voices and characters complementing each other to great effect.
The arrival of police outside Bartolo’s house coincides with the introduction of lighting as the sun sets around the outdoor stage. In ‘Fredda ed immobile’ the use of spotlight begins the evening’s piece de resistance: the brilliantly choreographed, freeze-frame crowd scene. As the act draws to a close, Bartolo stands frozen in horror whilst the cast gradually closesthe sides of the house upon him, symbolically enacting his state of mind. A man behind me mutters, ‘brilliant, brilliant, bravo’, before the applause begins.
The energy remains high throughout the rest of the performance. Darmanin thrives in his new disguise as a music teacher with yet another quirky wig, seeming more comfortable in the role of comedian than lover. The lovers perform ‘Contro un cor’ with great comic timing but are out-done by the doctor’s hilarious prancing to his out-of-tune aria.
After the plot is resolved, Darmanin receives heavy applause and cheers, so the audience either disagrees with me or think his acting is overruled by his voice.
There is no truly stand-out performance, but the directorial details (including a child finding a severed hand and walking off with it, and Figaro brushing a clown’s nose onto Bartolo with shaving foam) are brilliant, the musical directing superb and, though slow to start, the performance provides all the hilarity you could expect from Rossini, and sometimes more.