Sharply styled in modern colours over a traditional 18th century setting, with some truly inspired lighting by Wayne Dowdeswell, Longborough’s Barber of Seville does not seek to break the mould of this old Rossini favourite, but rather to give it a good airing in polished style which everyone can enjoy. The production contains few surprises, but offers us instead some very lovely singing (particularly from Helen Sherman as Rosina), and a great deal of charm. Part of this certainly springs from director Richard Studer’s concise and chirpy English translation of Sterbini’s libretto, which is sung with great clarity by all the cast, as well as appearing in surtitles: full of playful familiarity (we are even advised that we will “have to go to Mozart for the sequel”), Studer’s libretto produced many a happy laugh from the audience. And that, surely, is what Rossini’s Barber is all about. It’s not a complicated opera (beyond the usual tortuous obstacles of disguise and secrecy in the cause of true love): it’s really about fun, silliness and music. And Longborough’s production is accordingly enjoyable, deceptively simple, and accomplished.

Helen Sherman (Rosina) and Grant Doyle (Figaro) © Matthew Williams-Ellis
Helen Sherman (Rosina) and Grant Doyle (Figaro)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

Helen Sherman is certainly its highlight as Rosina. In Sherman’s detailed portrayal, Rosina is naughty, charming and a force to be reckoned with in her own right, scheming and plotting with just as much glee and dash as Figaro and Almaviva, and convincing us of Rosina’s idealistic teenage passion for a man she, quite honestly, doesn’t know. Sherman’s voice, capable of a truly huge sound and lyrically beautiful at all times, is an absolute delight, and the famous Singing Lesson scene – one of Rossini’s wittiest exchanges, comically and musically – becomes an absolute education in Sherman’s hands. I could not have enjoyed her performance more.

Constance Novis, in a much smaller part, also makes her mark on us as Dr Bartolo’s sourpuss housekeeper Berta, coming over all Bridget Jones in her aria “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie”, as she bemoans that, not yet married and past forty, she may as well be dead: the genuine comedy of Novis here captured the audience utterly, bringing this smaller role absolutely to the forefront of the performance, and bringing the house down in tears of laughter.

With two excellent female singers (on whom Rossini lavishes such fabulous arias to sing), the male parts can pale by comparison, and here they do. Nevertheless, the male principals are all strong and give committed and believable performances. Grant Doyle gives us an energetic Figaro, with plenty of physical comedy and a nice sense of Figaro’s ever-optimistic sense of opportunity. Rossini’s Figaro is a very different man to Mozart’s; master of the situation only when it suits and profits him, endlessly cynical about love. Doyle’s exasperation in the ladder scene towards the end of Act II was especially amusing, and altogether he was believable and assured.

Nicholas Sales (Almaviva) © Matthew Williams-Ellis
Nicholas Sales (Almaviva)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

Nicholas Sales’ Almaviva is similarly well drawn: the Count is a luxurious nobleman who loves to don a disguise as the penniless student ‘Lindoro’ or the singing teacher ‘Alonso’, but never wants to take the consequences, immediately pulling rank whenever his situation is threatened. Sales was particularly hilarious as ‘Alonso’, bringing a sense of madcap inspiration to the Singing Lesson scene as he “played” the orchestra from the decorative spinet on stage.

Julian Close’s delicious bass as Basilio was always a pleasure to hear, and his depiction of the self-absorbed, stuffy music teacher always well observed and gravely humourous. Adrian Powter, meanwhile, gave us a well-judged mixture of the old miser, the old goat and the social climber in Dr Bartolo, whose presumption in aspiring to the hand of Rosina was genuinely laughable.  

The orchestra, conducted by Jonathan Lyness, plays with a flourish, though it does occasionally overwhelm the singers. Nevertheless, Longborough’s Barber comes through loud and clear: light, frothy and hyperbolic in the best traditions of this comic opera, with a crisp modern edge to the production styling which keeps a contemporary edge. Just as, when one visits one’s own coiffeur or coiffeuse, one doesn’t always want to come out with a purple Mohican or green spikes, but would often rather come out with a haircut reasonably similar to the one with which you walked in, but just a bit smarter and tidier, sometimes it’s nice just to see a well-known and much-loved opera done straight, and done well.