Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia is an accident-prone opera. The première, at the Teatro Argentina in Rome, 1816, was one of the great operatic disasters. The audience, comprising many supporters of Giovanni Paisiello, who had already composed an opera on Beaumarchais’ comedy, gave Rossini a hard time, booing and hissing their disapproval. During the Act I finale, a cat wandered onto the stage to cause chaos – stray cats are still a feature of the area today, home to a cat sanctuary. At Opera Holland Park, peacocks rather than cats are inclined to participate in performances. On the first night of its new production of Rossini’s Barber, boos and hisses were entirely absent and disaster of the vocal variety was averted, albeit narrowly. Bass-baritone Nicholas Crawley, singing Fiorillo, stepped up to sing Don Basilio too, owing to the indisposition of William Robert Allenby.

Il barbiere di Siviglia at Opera Holland Park © Fritz Curzon
Il barbiere di Siviglia at Opera Holland Park
© Fritz Curzon

Otherwise, the performance unfolded without incident, as did Neil Irish’s origami set. A ramshackle terrace along a street – more Dickensian than Sevillano – opens up to take us inside Doctor Bartolo’s house, a cluttered space strewn with papers of every type: prescriptions, legal documentation, sheet music. Costuming confirms the Dickensian setting – top hat and velvet jacket for Figaro, a bowler hat for Fiorillo – although there was something winningly Jane Austen-esque about Kitty Whately’s Rosina.

Last year, I described Oliver Platt’s direction of Les pêcheurs de perles as being akin to a cricketer playing with a straight bat. Platt obviously attended the Geoffrey Boycott school of operatic direction, for again, everything is in its rightful place; the libretto is followed to the letter, with little drifting off into ‘the corridor of uncertainty’. Some of his ideas are unnecessary. For example, I don’t think you need an inebriated tramp wandering on-stage for Figaro to come up with the ruse of making Almaviva’s soldier a drunken one. Despite this curiosity, the production gets many things spot on to provide a crowd-pleasing performance of one of the staples of the comic repertory.

Kitty Whately (Rosina) Nico Darmanin (Almaviva) and Nicholas Lester (Figaro) © Fritz Curzon
Kitty Whately (Rosina) Nico Darmanin (Almaviva) and Nicholas Lester (Figaro)
© Fritz Curzon

Opera Holland Park takes great risks in putting on rare repertoire, not so much dabbling its toes in verismo as diving in fully clothed. So, why a solidly traditional Barbiere? The answer lies in the casting. The three principals are all exciting young singers and they all sang splendidly. This should be enough to draw anyone even remotely interested in opera to the OHP canopy this season. Kitty Whately is the star of the show as the frustrated, imprisoned Rosina, frowning and passing murderous looks at Bartolo whenever his back is turned; less little minx and more stroppy madam. Vocally, she’s a Rosina to die for, with a warm, honeyed mezzo. Tempi for “Una voce poco fa” and her duet with Figaro were on the steady side, which allowed for clean, tasteful ornamentation. Whately also had a lot of fun in the singing lesson scene in Act II, where her playful nature emerged.

Maltese tenor (yes, there’s more than one!) Nico Darmanin was a terrific Almaviva, his steely tenor and slightly nasal tone just right for Rossini roles. His comic timing is good and he threw himself into Almaviva’s various disguises with relish. Nicholas Lester, who started out in the OHP Chorus and sang Fiorillo last time round, made a great impression as Figaro, the eponymous barber. His full baritone is agile and he negotiated the patter of “Largo al factotum” with great panache. His contribution to “Dunque io son”, his duet with Rosina, was perfectly judged and he successfully manipulated the whole plot and had the audience in his palm. Quite an achievement.

Jonathan Veira (Dr Bartolo) and Kitty Whately (Rosina) © Fritz Curzon
Jonathan Veira (Dr Bartolo) and Kitty Whately (Rosina)
© Fritz Curzon

Jonathan Veira’s buffo antics made for a fine Bartolo, full of any amount of bluster and funny business, while Nicholas Crawley did a sterling job as Fiorillo and Basilio, well-caricatured and in good voice.

In the pit, the performance took a different turn after the overture, which zipped along vivaciously with raucous woodwinds and spirited percussion contributions. Thereafter, Matthew Waldren’s tempi were more measured, which supported his singers nicely, but missed a little Rossinian sparkle. The storm was a relative disappointment, both musically and in its staging. I can’t have been the only one eyeing the wind machine in the pit, used for La fanciulla del west the evening before, and wondering if it couldn’t have been put to further use here?

Even so, this witty, warm-hearted production has plenty going for it, not least some spirited singing, which lived up to great expectations.