If it works, don’t fix it. First performed by Opera North at the Leeds Grand Theatre in 1986, this gleaming Rolls Royce of a production is proudly back on the road again. Director Giles Havergal was a key mover at Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre for more than three decades, and his great talents are displayed in this supremely theatrical version.

Gavan Ring, Eric Roberts, Katie Bray, Nicholas Watts © Tristram Kenton
Gavan Ring, Eric Roberts, Katie Bray, Nicholas Watts
© Tristram Kenton

There is a stage within a stage – a boxy construction on three levels, with Figaro’s  barber’s shop on the ground floor stage left, screened off by a curtain with his name on it, above which is the living room of Doctor Bartolo. Rosina’s bedroom is up another level, at stage right, also equipped with a named curtain. Benches for eclectically costumed, vaguely early nineteenth century spectators are at either side of the whole thing, so that we are watching them watching the main performers, as if these were members of a kind of Commedia dell’Arte troupe from earlier times which has set up in the main square of a small town somewhere. The spectators mill about, top hats bobbing, children scuttling, and look at us directly to make sure we appreciate the fun, to give us the idea that we are watching the events of a time within a time as well.

Eric Roberts as Dr Bartolo, Gavan Ring as Figaro © Tristram Kenton
Eric Roberts as Dr Bartolo, Gavan Ring as Figaro
© Tristram Kenton
It’s a timeless story, of course, which could be transposed to anywhere and to most cultures (Rosina in purdah?), with the cheeky young blade taking what should be his from the old fool, the fascinating trickster, the beautiful and cunning ingénue and so on, and it works like a well-engineered machine in Leeds, lubricated by an excellent English translation (Robert David MacDonald) which makes full use of vernacular. The team of principals is fresh and young, but it is the not-so-young veteran Eric Roberts, a specialist in buffo baritone roles, who, as Doctor Bartolo, deserves a first mention. The fact that he is a seasoned interpreter of the role shows: he acts his heart out, with a slight, appropriate dodder to his voice but not to his gait, because he can gambol about when necessary as well as doze off in an armchair with his thumb in his mouth. His diction is phenomenal when speed is required.

Katie Bray as Rosina © Tristram Kenton
Katie Bray as Rosina
© Tristram Kenton
Mezzo Katie Bray gives Rosina some intriguing dark tones, and handles the coloraturas with great skill thoughout, from when she sings about a little voice echoing in her heart (“Una voce poco fa”) onwards. She mentions in her aria responding to challenges like a viper, which gives her a modern edge, but this did not show much: her emphasis is on the wide-eyed charm. Nicholas Watts as Almaviva has a beautiful bel canto tenor and a knack for looking truly aristocratic in all the poses. His aria of pride and joy at the end of Act II (“Ah, il più lento”) transmits the happy spirit of the whole production. Gavan Ring as Figaro is a proper spiv and a comic master, who delivers unflinchingly the most famous aria in all opera “Largo al factotum” with a verve which makes it seem to be just-composed. Alistair Miles as Don Basilio, wearing a ludicrous tall wig and a pigtail down to his waist to go with the great gravity of his voice, demonstrates just why he is regarded as a member of the premiere league of British basses. The ensemble playing is what matters most, though, and this is at its most effective toward the end, when the principals join hands across the stage, then suddenly freeze before  skittering away into the crescendo of the finale.

Victoria Sharp as Berta plus cast © Tristram Kenton
Victoria Sharp as Berta plus cast
© Tristram Kenton
The Chorus is as accomplished as always, including on this occasion an ageing relative of Harpo Marx to provide an extra snippet of entertainment as he carries props about, including a harp, naturally. Stuart Stratford conducts astutely, with well-controlled tempi and particularly dominant strings, building the excitement gradually. This revival is a classic in all senses of the word, and an example of the effectiveness of the ongoing collaboration between Opera North and Welsh National Opera.

*****