The Barber of Seville and Eugene Onegin, the two operas being toured by English Touring Opera this season, share two things: they are both highly melodic stalwarts of the repertoire, and their plots both revolve around the writing of love letters. Beyond that, however, they couldn't be more different: Onegin laden with angst and regret, and The Barber the most frivolous and frothiest of romantic comedies. Rossini's characters are straight out of commedia dell'arte (the old fool infatuated with a young girl, the scheming and boastful servant, the pretty but clever put-upon girl), and the action is there to match.

Andrew Slater (Bartolo) and Alan Fairs (Basilio) © Richard Hubert Smith
Andrew Slater (Bartolo) and Alan Fairs (Basilio)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Thomas Guthrie's production for ETO, which opened last night at the Hackney Empire, is uncomplicated, uncontroversial and plays it solidly for laughs. It's helped by a great performance from the orchestra under Paul McGrath, who keeps everything light, upbeat and full of orchestral colour without overdoing the crescendi or the acceleration: the singers always have space to make their notes heard, even in the fast sections. From the very first notes of the overture, I was happy that the most was being made of Rossini's tuneful score.

All the roles were well sung. The strongest performance of the show was Andrew Slater's pompously self-important Dr. Bartolo. Slater was powerful in the slower passages and with perfectly controlled articulation in the rapid-fire basso buffo numbers; he commanded the stage and the action right until the point at the end when he is finally discomfited. Grant Doyle was an engaging Figaro, and seemed to lift Nicholas Sharratt as Almaviva, who was at his best in the duets between master and servant. Alan Fairs was splendidly amusing in Don Basilio's big number about slander, and Kitty Whately was an appealing Rosina. Comic acting was excellent throughout. The production has many amusing bits of invention (I loved the conceit that the soldiers in Act I are wounded and that Dr. Bartolo is having to operate on them – incompetently, of course) and it was notable how well the singers combined with the orchestra to bring out Rossini's many musical gags.

Translating opera is an unforgiving business. David Parry's translation does an excellent job: the dialogue is in clear language which is modern without sounding forced or anachronistic and makes use of lots of rhyme to add comic effect. It does lose out in some of the word-setting: when (in Figaro's opening introduction to himself) "di qualità" is translated as "par excellence", it makes perfect sense and is thoroughly good-humoured, but the last syllable is almost impossible to sing. Broadly, the cast did well with it: surtitles were not used, but most of the words were understandable, apart from in the big ensemble pieces in which everyone is singing at the same time.

Given the constraints of requiring sets that can pack up flat into the back of a truck, Rhys Jarman's designs were impressive. Large panels shifted around the stage to produce rooms in Bartolo's house or the street; the panels and a painted backdrop of a cloudy skyline were cleverly lit to produce different times of day.

If you come to this production looking for the cutting edge of opera, you're in the wrong show. The Barber of Seville comes from a period of opera in which the conventions were well understood – recitatives, cavatinas, duets/trios and big chorus numbers are clearly delineated and easy to follow, and the different stock roles are immediately familiar. This production isn't taking any risks; rather, it renders a well-beloved work faithfully, inventively and humourously. If you want to hear classic comic opera or simply want some lovely music and an evening's escape, I can't think of better.

****1