Welsh National Opera presented a rather unsatisfying version of The Barber of Seville with Sam Brown’s conceptions of dancing scissors, toy dogs and a barber who was more of a gondolier with dirty knees than a fancy hairdresser. At this point, one has to question the purpose of remaking a traditional opera. The commedia itself, ever witty in lyrics under Kelley Rourke’s translation (if not a little harsh on the consonants), was pushed to a new level of silly as more of a farcical pantomime than a well-conceived opera. It forgot all about the charm and warmth needed to contrast with the comedic moments and lacked the general balance of a construction of highs and lows of an engaging show. Some of the props failed to work, the constant spinning of the reflective surfaces of the plastic set was blinding and its transparent nature left no element of surprise.

Nicholas Lester (Figaro) and Nico Darmanin (Almaviva) © Richard Hubert Smith
Nicholas Lester (Figaro) and Nico Darmanin (Almaviva)
© Richard Hubert Smith

There was no obvious sense of purpose to the way the production had been set. In the programme notes, director Sam Brown states that “historical context is not critical”, which is true, but then the original relationship between the characters should not have been ignored completely. For the characters to be moved to another context is fine, but they should still share similar relationships. Chorus choreography was awkward to watch and served no effective purpose apart from filling an empty stage, resulting in fairly tacky numbers with barbershop singers appearing from a giant wardrobe, a scissor dance in the overture, an umbrella dance in strobes and slow-motion choreography in drag.

Ralph Koltai’s set design was too minimal for the lack of action going on stage, which resulted in the most engaging scene being the final one in which the set was completely wheeled back to a white background with everyone on stage and a policeman in the middle blew his whistle. The chaos was represented more effectively by everyone acting than it was with the two panels revolving and perpetually creating the same environment despite intending to have the opposite effect. To confuse everyone, the front curtain was adorned with a cartoon fake-tattoo graphic of a pink heart with an arrow through it.

Claire Booth (Rosina) and Nico Darmanin (Almaviva) © Richard Hubert Smith
Claire Booth (Rosina) and Nico Darmanin (Almaviva)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The sense of chaos was sadly more prevalent in the fundamental elements of the opera, specifically the music. The conductor did not keep the orchestra and singers together or in balance, resulting in a musically uncoordinated performance. Figaro’s famous opening of Largo al factotum, sung by Nicholas Lester, was anticlimactic as the orchestra was louder than the voice on stage. Lester threw away the lines rather than giving the sense of occasion and triumph that Rossini’s music requires. At some points in the opera, the singers were really fighting to be heard over the orchestra. This is not to say that the musicians were poor at all; indeed, they were the most brilliant aspect of the performance, just badly balanced.

WNO's <i>The Barber of Seville</i> © Richard Hubert Smith
WNO's The Barber of Seville
© Richard Hubert Smith

Claire Booth was a polished Rosina, singing immaculately with florid vibrato and a feminine guile. Booth deserved credit for performing more of the evening dressed in her underwear and as a manga-esque schoolgirl, than as a wealthy heiress. When she wore a gold flamenco dress for the last scene of Act I, ruffles were torn from it by local housewives, played by the all male barbershop singing chorus, in which Brown alludes to her wealth in an angry step-sister Cinderella moment. Booth’s voice was rivalled by Richard Wiegold as Don Basilio who was capable of holding suspense and added drama with his powerfully rich bass notes. Wiegold triumphed over the voices of Andrew Shore as a grumpy and pompous Bartolo and Nico Darmanin as the variously disguised Count Almaviva. Both Shore and Darmanin sang remarkably well, but were weaker in character.

This production was well received by the audience: no standing ovations, but they did laugh. Perhaps, no matter what treatment is given to Rossini’s work, his commedia will always amuse. 

**111