Iford Arts' opera summer season has kicked off with a lively take on Rossini's ever-green comic masterpiece, produced especially by Iford Festival Opera.
In the so-called cloisters, tucked away in the manor's Peto gardens, Iford surely boasts one of the festival season's most magical venues, allowing a level of intimate communication between performers and audience more akin to a drawing room than an opera house.
Rossini's comedy might have benefited from this special intimacy but, after a nicely turned account of the overture, it became clear that singers and the production had not quite worked out how best to take advantage of the unique opportunities provided by the venue.
André Heller-Lopes faced the same challenges any director does in this small place, having necessarily to design his sets around a large font in the middle of the stage – just one example of the high-class architectural salvage incorporated into the cloisters' structure – and make do without scene changes. The set, then, consisted of wooden stairs leading to a small platform above the font, with the font itself covered in domestic paraphernalia. Large, different coloured net curtains surround this central set, representing the walls of Don Bartolo's house. Not quite as transparent as one might have hoped, there was a certain relief when these were drawn a couple of numbers in to Act One, although they provided scope for some nice curtain-twitching touches throughout the evening.
Heller-Lopes' production resituates the action in the 1960s, with Don Bartolo struggling to come to terms with the new liberalism afforded to the generation below him, represented by the happy-go-lucky triumvirate of Rosina, Almaviva and Figaro, all decked out in costumes designed by Mayka Amrami Finkelstein that were flamboyantly evocative of the era. Beyond these costumes and some contemporary props, though, there was little done to delve into the parallels between this period and that in which Rossini (or Beaumarchais) was writing, or to comment further on Rosina's now supposedly having been empowered by the sexual revolution; we had, in the end, the same non-specific battle of the generations there's always been. Amanda Holden's stylish translation was left, as far as I could tell, untouched where a few more cultural references could have been introduced or, at least, an attempt to address the libretto's anachronisms – Bartolo's mention of Farinelli in the music lesson, for example. Resorting to 60s dance moves to accompany Rossini's buoyant rhythmic writing did little to lend the production's central concept conviction, on the other hand, displaying rather the now worryingly ubiquitous desire among directors to undercut straightforward musical joie de vivre in the bel canto repertoire with knowing choreographic winks and nods.
The acting and directing was characterised mainly broad comic strokes. These helped much of the evening fizz by enjoyably and there were a couple of nice subtle touches, too. Among these was the introduction of an unexpected level of complexity to Rosina's relationship with Bartolo when she seemed genuinely upset at being told off for lying. Yet the success of the evening was down more to the sheer exuberance of the overall performance than these occasional touches of subtlety. And it was an impression that was largely reinforced by much of the singing: for the small space of the cloisters, there were some big voices which might have been more effective if reined in occasionally.
Marc Scoffoni gave us a powerfully robust 'Largo al factotum' but one that, for the singer's undeniable charisma, was short on genuine charm. Throughout the evening, he sang strongly, but his Figaro risked sometimes crossing the line from charming cheeky-chappery into arrogance and agression (not helped by more rather childish choreographic touches).
Joana Thomé as Rosina displayed a seductively rich and powerful voice that was remarkably mobile across some nicely embellished fioritura and she balanced the two sides of Rosina's character well. As her suitor, Almaviva, Tom Raskin had a nice line in puppy-dog forlornness and coped with the vocal demands of the role admirably. William Robert Allenby brought the right sense of bumbling frustration to Bartolo but tended towards some unimaginative, overly-loud delivery, as was the case with much of his Act One aria. It was unclear how Richard Mitham's Basilio, recast as a slimy and camp sycophant in suit and white gloves, fitted into the production's scheme, however, and, as Berta, Christine Teare – a singer whose previous credits include Turandot at the Royal Opera – seemed a strange piece of casting for so modest a venue. Special mention must go to Sebastian Valentine who, in Figaro-like demand all evening, popped up variously as Fiorello at the start, a soldier in the Act One Finale and a nun at the start of Act Two.
Andrew Griffiths – a graduate of the Royal Opera's Young Artist Programme – managed to keep things together with a sure hand, produced some seductive Rossinian rubato and elicited a great deal of characterful playing from the ten-peice orchestra, Chroma, who adeptly sang the chorus in the first scene. Griffiths also accompanied the recitatives which, at only the second performance, did not skip along as tautly as one might hope, something that will no doubt improve as the run progresses.
Not Rossini performance at its most nuanced or elegant, then, in a production that seems to have lost some of its conviction between the planning and execution stages. Nevertheless, the energy and humour at the heart of the performance made for an enjoyable night of Rossinian high sprits in surroundings that never lose their unique charm.
By Hugo Shirley
Further performances of The Barber of Seville take place on June 25,27,29 & July 1,3, 4. The Early Opera Company's Coronation of Poppea opens at Iford on July 10 and Eugene Onegin opens on July 24.
All details can be found on the Iford Arts website.