Il barbiere di Siviglia must be accounted Rossini’s masterpiece, rather than one of his serious works, given its longevity and performance history, not to mention its inimitable pairing of comedy plot and music. This State Opera of South Australia production, a joint effort by Opera Queensland, Seattle Opera and New Zealand Opera, was directed by Lindy Hume, designed by Tracy Grant Lord with special choreography by Rafael Bonachela, and features a sunny take on the Spain of everyone’s imagination.

The Barber of Seville
© Soda Street Productions

This performance took place in Her Majesty’s Theatre, a recently refurbished 1913 venue, with a sumptuous new interior. This would appear to be the State Opera of South Australia’s new performing home, with a large proscenium stage, fly tower and seating capacity of close to 1500. The acoustics are excellent (from where I was sitting anyway), superior to those of the Festival Theatre which has had a few problems over the years. 

Hume sets the opera in the world of a town square with gossiping housewives and bolshy servants, just as it should be, with brightly coloured Spanish outfits – Almaviva suggests a toreador in black and gold, Figaro a red-and-purple tow-haired wide boy, Rosina in a dashing full red skirt and red and white blouse. Dr Bartolo confused some of the audience by appearing initially as a decayed old man with whispy white locks, reappearing to claim his bride looking 20 years younger in a black wig. The proscenium arch itself is defined by a collage of doors, and the stage set is bounded by doors and windows, easily transformed from an al fresco square into an interior setting with the addition of armchairs and an elaborate light fitting. The Rossinian crescendos, in which the entire cast evinces confusion and lunacy, are highlighted with swirling lighting effects (courtesy Matthew Marshall), and the finale is a saturated red paradise, with descending streamers, floating rose petals and finely choreographed chaos.

Katie Stenzel (Rosina)
© Soda Street Productions

Versatile conductor Graham Abbott surprisingly cut his Rossinian teeth on this occasion, getting right to the heart of the comedy and the helter-skelter nature of the music, and drawing excellent sound and pacing from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. The overture was perfectly paced, with nice work from the woodwinds, foreshadowing the musical fun to come. The mostly male chorus of the State Opera Ensemble were nimble and perfectly synchronised in their contribution.

Morgan Pearse (Figaro)
© Soda Street Productions

The principals all displayed winning personalities, although the actual singing was a little variable. The title role was sung by rising baritone Morgan Pearse, last heard by – and impressing – me in Handel’s Tolomeo in Karlsruhe just before the plague curtain fell. In his famous “Largo al factotum”, he carried the day with resonant tone, excellent timing and accurate passage work, marred only by a couple of tiny cracks. He also showed good timing when popping a balloon to mark a moment as the score pivoted. John Longmuir as Almaviva deployed his attractive Italianate tenor to good effect, catching by turns the comic and romantic aspects of his character. For some reason, both Rosina and Berta were portrayed by sopranos, although the historical preference for both has been predominantly mezzo soprano. Katie Stenzel characterised the part of Rosina well and projected a pleasing presence, but her voice did not sound much at home in bel canto style, with rather a heavy vibrato and some shrillness at the top. 

The top bass roles of Dr Bartolo and Don Basilio were both taken by Adelaide stalwarts, Douglas McNicol and Pelham Andrews respectively. McNicol made a stunning transition from old man to (somewhat) younger suitor, but his powerful voice belied his supposed antiquity. He did get a lot of fun from his aria in the music lesson scene in imitation of bygone castrato “Caffariello” (presumably alluding to Caffarelli). Basilio doesn’t have a lot to do apart from sneaking around the set looking insidious, but Andrews certainly made the most of “La calunnia”.

Douglas McNicol (Bartolo) and John Longmuir (Almaviva)
© Soda Street Productions

The role of Berta the servant always strikes one as problematic; in earlier times (in my lifetime anyway) the poor singer usually just slunk around in the background looking put upon until called upon to sing her single aria, often accompanied by copious sneezing (arising from a reference in the libretto to Dr Bartolo’s use of stranutiglia). More recently, productions have tried to find some life for the poor thing, and in this case for Bartolo’s other servant, Ambrogio, as well. Both are almost constantly on stage and often together. Soprano Teresa LaRocca grabbed the opportunity with both hands; garbed as a Dawn French lookalike re hair and glasses, in a bright green and yellow striped tunic with grey apron, she maniacally vacuumed her way around the bewildered household. She sang her aria absolutely straight, with lovely Italian diction. In the finale, the cast all joined in a lively fandango, featuring Berta cutting a rug with Ambrogio, and reminding us what a wonderful ensemble piece this is.