Given the paucity of operas in Ireland, there is always great anticipation when one is performed, especially one as witty and delightful as Wide Open Opera’s production of The Barber of Seville. Rossini’s Barber is a jewel among comic operas of the 19th century, and judging from the frequency and heartiness of laughs from the audience, it has lost none of its capacity to entertain and to amuse modern audiences. It was not just the fine comic acting that was so impressive but the stellar cast of singers which made it a resounding success.

Tara Erraught (Rosina) and Gavan Ring (Figaro) © Patrick Redmond
Tara Erraught (Rosina) and Gavan Ring (Figaro)
© Patrick Redmond

While I am not hugely in favour of directors updating period gems like The Barber to make it more relevant for modern audiences, there was lots to admire in director Michael Barker-Caven’s 1970s take on this classic. Most of the action of the opera took place in the simple interior of Dr Bartolo’s house, cleverly designed by Jamie Vartan with large amounts of vinyl and recording equipment in evidence while for the street scenes the interior could spin round to reveal slightly grotty, graffiti-sprayed walls typical of city houses on the continent. A faded poster of Franco completed the set. Barker-Caven’s idea of having Figaro enter in an old Beetles van with the hairdresser’s red and white pole aloft was nothing short of hilarious as was Count Almaviva’s serenading of Rosina via a street telephone with Figaro accompanying him on an electric guitar. While setting the action of the opera in the 1970s offered many moments of mirth, it still did not explain satisfactorily two essential premises of the opera, why the spirited Rosina would have neither the freedom to love whom she wished nor the liberty to leave the house of her lecherous guardian?

Gavan Ring (Figaro) and Tyler Nelson (Almaviva) © Patrick Redmond
Gavan Ring (Figaro) and Tyler Nelson (Almaviva)
© Patrick Redmond

However, such was the quality of singing from the principals that any incongruities of period were quickly forgotten. In particular it was the ravishing voice of young Irish mezzo Tara Erraught that really bowled me over. Dispatching her rapid passages, leaps and high notes with pearly brilliance, she beguiled us all with her delicate coloratura and pellucid tone. At once saucy and sly, Erraught brought Rosina alive perfectly capturing her inherent wilfulness, while in Act II she imbued her character with a certain vulnerability as she sings the alternative aria “Ah se è ver che in tal momento” (not usually included) wondering whether her lover has been faithful or not. Erraught has been often dubbed as a rising star of the opera world: I think last night’s performance proved her as a luminously brilliant star at her zenith.

Gavan Ring’s Figaro oozed charm from every pore; dressed in flares and a crimson blazer, he delivered his opening “Largo al factotum” with aplomb, the rapid patter singing here and elsewhere niftily executed. Evidently enjoying his role immensely, he displayed brilliant comic timing in his guitar imitations and John Travolta-esque dance moves as he connived to introduce Almaviva into Dr Bartolo’s house in order to woo the fair Rosina – for a small monetary incentive. Tyler Nelson’s Count Almaviva has a pivotal role to play and while his voice lacked sufficient weight, particularly early on, the quality was lyrical and expressive. He too, proved to be an excellent actor and as the opera wore on he stole many of the scenes. I admit to guffawing heartily at his wonderfully distracted music lesson as Don Alonso, while his drunken solider impression was a real crowd-pleaser.

Tyler Nelson (Almaviva) and Graeme Danby (Bartolo) © Patrick Redmond
Tyler Nelson (Almaviva) and Graeme Danby (Bartolo)
© Patrick Redmond

Despite Graeme Danby’s Dr Bartolo looking thoroughly disreputable and sleazy (aided by the bling jewellery, white suit, dark shirt and light-coloured sunglasses) he gave an illuminating performance. He blustered convincingly with stunningly clear diction and like his rival, Almaviva, he too possessed the comic touch. His forthright rejection of Basilio’s cunning plan was hilarious as was his falsetto singing in Act II. John Molloy sang with excellent projection as Don Basilio and his “La Calunnia” glistened with malicious intent, while Mary O’Sullivan as the thwarted Berta gave us some spectacular high notes in her Act II aria and virtuosic duet moments with Rosina.

The antics of the male chorus with their flowery shirts, flares, long hair and loose living added to the general jocularity, while the interventions of the police bordered on the slapstick with their mincing gait and attempted arrests.

Conductor Fergus Sheil drew a crisp, fresh sound from the Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera providing an energetic accompaniment throughout. At times, Sheil did not achieve an entirely felicitous balance between singers and instruments particularly in the more exciting, rapid-fire, syllable-spewing moments when the orchestra clearly overpowered singers both individually and collectively. All in all, this was an engaging and highly entertaining account of Rossini’s classic. Now Ireland needs more excellent quality operas such as this.