Now in its second season after the dramatic “Grange split” in 2016, under Michael Chance’s amiable but hands-on artistic stewardship, The Grange Festival seems to be approaching its future with cautious optimism and a burgeoning sense of artistic vision and audacity. For its second opera of the 2018 season, we were transported from the orangery of The Grange to a place more famous for its oranges – Seville.

John Irvin (Almaviva) and the Grange Chorus © Simon Annand
John Irvin (Almaviva) and the Grange Chorus
© Simon Annand

Stephen Barlow’s new production of Il barbiere di Siviglia cannot be appreciated unless one accepts from the outset that it is entirely absurdist; its ludicrous nature is emphasised by the giant moustache hanging from the front of the house. The staging is gloriously baffling: the curtain withdraws to reveal a giant bust, from the snout of which unfurls a magnificent moustache-shaped hedge that covers much of the stage, a vivid green speckled with fruit. Behind the bust is the curved, tiered background of an opera house auditorium, painted bright orange and studded with – spot the pattern here – moustache-shaped brackets. Barlow’s designer Andrew D Edwards then has the bust revolve to reveal Doctor Bartolo’s house within, and impressively at the top within the cranium we are introduced to Rosina, sitting on a swing within a gilded bird cage.

Charles Rice (Figaro) and the Grange Chorus © Simon Annand
Charles Rice (Figaro) and the Grange Chorus
© Simon Annand

Barlow clearly relishes the bizarre – costumes are period until Almaviva adopts lower-class gear at which point he appears in jeans and a University of Seville T-Shirt. Don Basilio clad in stern, 19th-century black is glued to earbuds and a smartphone; during “Buona sera, mio signore” as Rosina, Almaviva and Figaro slip into a synchronised dance, Basilio retrieves a microphone and starts gyrating in karaoke fashion. Period and modern clash with riotous results. It’s terrific fun with an air of improvisation that gives the comedy an additional edge; during “Largo al factotum” for example a member of the audience – naively I presume not a plant – was pulled on stage by Figaro’s mustachioed barber crew and given an impromptu shave. Choreography, though, was very strong, particularly in some of the ensemble scenes: the end of Act 1, when a police squad storms the building had moments where a mistimed move would have ruined the scene.

Josè Maria Lo Monaco (Rosina) © Simon Annand
Josè Maria Lo Monaco (Rosina)
© Simon Annand
Musically, the production benefits from a strong cast. This was soprano Josè Maria Lo Monaco’s debut in the UK and on the strength of her Rosina, it is to be hoped that she makes regular return visits. She is obviously a consummate singer of Rossini; the silky legato and honed coloratura suggests a natural facility for bel canto, and her attention to text was a pleasure to see. As regards stage presence, she has an easy, beaming smile and brought a sense of sparkiness to Rosina; an admirable performance indeed. John Irvin took a little while to warm up as Almaviva: his tenor voice sounded pinched and strained in “Ecco, ridente in cielo”, but by the time he made it into the Bartolo residence, he seemed to have relaxed and ventures into the higher registers seemed easier. Irvin’s flair for comedy was at its strongest when Almaviva was in disguise; whipping out increasingly large Bibles as the Jehovah’s Witness-inspired “Don Alonso” and brandishing machine guns as the drunken soldier.

Charles Rice was a burly Figaro, naturally suited to the part with a warm affability and energetic stage presence. There was a slight tendency to blur between singing and shouting on one or two occasions, but he delivered a fine “Largo al factotum” and phrasing was good. Riccardo Novaro, singing Doctor Bartolo, epitomised the fine buffo bass tradition, well-projected patter singing and an array of expressions the keenest weapons in his well-equipped vocal arsenal.

Josè Maria Lo Monaco (Rosina) © Simon Annand
Josè Maria Lo Monaco (Rosina)
© Simon Annand

The ever-reliable David Soar gave an unusual, sinister Don Basilio with distinct hints of the Steve Bannon about him – at least until the microphone came out in Act 2. His “La calunnia è un venticello” was forcefully but melodiously sung and, as Soar drew out his phone and started tapping his slanders in, could almost have been renamed “The Fake News Aria”, the various members of the chorus gazing at their own devices as Basilio’s tweets started flying.

It was, however, Jennifer Rhys-Davies as Berta who stole every scene in which she appeared. Plodding wearily along, chain-smoking as she went and very believably slumping in Bartolo’s chair to telephone a friend for most of her lines, her “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie” was a masterpiece of comic showmanship and vocally she showed off a higher register and power that remains in good shape. With an excellent performance from the chorus and a vivid, effervescent sound from the Bournemouth Symphony under the baton of eminent Rossinian David Parry, this was a corker of an evening – one to catch if at all possible.

****1