Take note: Opera Holland Park's new production of Rossini's The Barber of Seville does far more justice to the work than either of the most recent productions by The Royal Opera and English National Opera.
Though not as starrily cast, and by no means perfect, this Barber is packed with razor sharp humour, and the musical standards are very high. It is a tribute to all involved that in spite of the atrocious weather - much to my amusement, the storm music in Act Two was accompanied by a real-life storm outside the OHP tent - the evening was thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable.
Although Roger Butlin's sets are minimal, director Tim Carroll has much to say about the piece. In particular, it was an inspired idea to provide Figaro with a kind of alter ego in the form of a small boy assistant. At the start of 'Largo al factotum', the boy appears onstage and mouths Figaro's opening lines, which was very witty. He also stands watch at the top of the ladder in Act Two, when Figaro and Almaviva have arrived to rescue Rosina. But the most inspired use of the boy is in the largo concertato of the first-act finale. In this lyrical movement, when the action stops and all the characters 'freeze-frame' to express their internal emotions, the boy goes round the chorus of soldiers swapping their hats and moving their guns into absurd positions. It is a loving mockery of this convention of Rossinian opera which is beautiful to listen to but does not advance the action, and just one of a number of clever moments in this thoughtful production.
All the singers acted their socks off, which helped to eradicate any small doubts about some of their voices - though frankly the constant distraction of the rain made it a wonder that the performance continued at all at times.
A star was born on the first night of the run when tenor Brad Cooper opened his mouth. You could go round the world and never hear a better-sung Count Almaviva. His coloratura is second to none - it comes as little surprise to discover that he spent the summer of 2005 studying with Marilyn Horne - while his voice is much richer than many other singers who undertake this role. And he is an excellent actor, portraying both the romantic and comedic elements of the character to perfection. Without a doubt, this was one of the most exciting debuts I have heard in a long time; here is a singer with a true bel canto voice. Let's hope he returns to the company often (it would be nice to see them take on L'italiana in Algeri).
Against such talent, it was perhaps inevitable that the other singers did not make quite the same vocal impression, but there were no real complaints. Frances Bourne was never less than charming as Rosina. Her voice has ping and sparkle, which are ideal for Rossini, but I was a little concerned with her coloratura in the big numbers, which were not always executed nimbly. Toby Stafford-Allen could not have been a more entertaining Figaro, truly convincing as the general factotum, even if his voice could be a shade more lyrically beautiful. Eric Roberts looked and acted the part of Dr Bartolo to perfection, though his voice did not always carry above the intrusive sound of the rain. Sarah Redgwick made a huge impression in the small role of Berta, and Matthew Hargreaves was a witty, if woolly voiced, Basilio.
Although he was less than inspiring to watch and there were momentary lapses of co-ordination in the big set pieces, conductor Robert Dean led a very tight ship in this performance. The quality of the string sound coming from the City of London Sinfonia was ideally lucid, while the Opera Holland Park Chorus was similarly elegant in tone.
In all, another triumph for Opera Holland Park.