Even before a note had sounded at the Wales Millennium Centre last Thursday evening, emotions were running high, and the atmosphere inside the auditorium felt electrified. Welsh National Opera’s 75th anniversary year, tragically stymied by the pandemic, has been a celebration in waiting, bestowing on this long-awaited performance all the heightened anticipation of an absurdly over-coiled spring. Thus it was that even before the final notes of Rossini’s overture had begun to fade, an especially warm and vigorous applause filled the hall, and I have to admit that, in addition to smiles, there were also a few tears. For reasons more than that of music or narrative, The Barber of Seville had become momentous.

The Barber of Seville returns to WNO
© Richard Hubert Smith

It was the perfect choice of opera to bring to an end the long hiatus and get WNO’s party well and truly started. Not simply because Rossini’s opera is such outrageous, irrepressible fun, but also due to the fact that this presentation of their 1996 production served as a visual reminder of the importance and value of performance-giving. The stage became a town square occupied by random figures curious and increasingly attentive and appreciative of a second stage set up in its space, upon which played out the evening’s entertainment. This stage-within-a-stage served both as Doctor Bartolo’s house (prominently featuring Rosina’s bedroom) and Figaro’s barber shop, the discrete spaces labelled with curtains declaring their occupants. The meta arrangement of this presentation was wonderfully convoluted: sometimes confined to the “audience”, other times interacting with the orchestra – inviting them to start or stop playing – and breaking the fourth wall in our direction. All of this mischievously undermined the obvious artifice of opera while at the same time making it all the more engaging and immersive – reinforcing how wonderful it was for everyone involved to be performing once again.

Nicholas Lester (Figaro) and Heather Lowe (Rosina)
© Richard Hubert Smith

However, the evening owed its power and success to a great deal more than just the significance of the occasion. Though obviously played primarily for laughs, the way that comedy can throw such a fearlessly bright light on the foibles and passions of human existence was the evening’s dominant characteristic. Aside from the jokes and the mayhem, Nico Darmanin’s portrayal of Count Almaviva rendered him a man who, ultimately, is simply dying to be united with the woman of his dreams. Likewise, Andrew Shore took the diabolical figure of Bartolo and made him more than a mere pantomime villain, caught between a lust for money and a longing for Rosina. Apropos: Heather Lowe’s portrayal of her overflowed with emotion, swinging wildly between excitement and despair. 

Beside such a compelling trio as this, Nicholas Lester’s Figaro, for all his titular significance, seemed of only secondary importance, an impression reinforced by his somewhat underpowered delivery. In some respects, though, this served to enhance the drama, making the likelihood of all coming good in the end more remote and unlikely, almost as if – gasp! – the usual ending might even have been tragically rewritten.

Nicholas Lester (Figaro), Heather Lowe (Rosina), Andrew Shore (Bartolo) and Nico Darmanin (Almaviva)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Of course, that didn’t happen; we were there to laugh and cry and boo and cheer with this motley collection of heroes and miscreants, and conductor Tomáš Hanus made sure we did, often taking the music at such a ludicrous lick that the singers simultaneously gabbled and tripped over their relentless streams of syllables, holding things up to exaggerate dramatic beats, driving home the happy ending with more than the usual amount of élan.

One sensed in the sheer weight of feeling articulated by singers and orchestra that this was not simply about Almaviva and Rosina’s triumph, but that of the whole WNO company, finally back on stage, dizzy with elation.