★★★★½ Bordogna and Co. lather up for a trip to bel canto heaven.

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
January 28, 2016

Written in three weeks by a 24-year-old Rossini with a bottom drawer overture hastily thrown in for good measure, The Barber of Seville deserves to show at least some signs of being a rush job or the odd failure of inspiration. Not a bit of it. Two hundred years on (its birthday is February 20), it remains the perfect example of opera buffa and stands as eloquent testament to the composer’s skill with musical comedy. There’s never a dull moment.

First seen in 1995, Elijah Moshinsky’s production is a homage to the silent movie – all kohl around the eyes with a bit of commedia thrown in and filtered through the lens of a Fellini. It too deserves to be showing its age, or at least fraying around the edges. Not a bit of that either! Twenty-one years on (its birthday is next June 14), it remains as sharp as Figaro’s razor and is a reminder – if you needed one – that for all his heavyweight intellectual directorial rigour, Moshinsky is also a master of the light touch and even the downright side-splitting. There’s never a dull moment.

“… Moshinsky is also a master of the light touch and even the downright side-splitting”

If you haven’t seen it before you’re in for a treat. If you have, there’s plenty more to be gleaned on a second or third viewing when the gags come as thick and fast as this, and especially when the cast are as on top of their material as Opera Australia’s superb band of singers and actors are here. Michael Yeargan’s delicious sets range from a miniature Aussie row of terraces (complete with tiny mechanical departing Bartolo) to a house with more doors than a Feydeau farce. And Moshinsky’s not afraid to use them, hustling and bustling his cast up and down stairs and including a hilarious array of the doctor’s hapless patients, none of whom ever seem to get his attention for more than five ticks and are invariably abandoned to the ham-fisted ministrations of long-suffering nurse Berta.

Opera Australia’s The Barber of Seville © Keith Saunders

Laugh out loud moments abound (and I promise you I don’t easily laugh out loud – especially at the opera): the barbershop sequence with its camp array of coiffured customers; the Keystone Cops search of Bartolo’s house; the flash of Basilio’s sock garters as he does a demure kick line; Bartolo with a cocktail shaker in the genuinely funny music lesson; and the way he nods to Basilio to indicate that those pills are actually suppositories; the poor man with the bandaged foot who is fated to have it trodden and tripped over ad infinitum. Nice translated surtitles too, “onto your macaroni the cheese has just dropped” being a fine example.

Of course, no Barber will thrive if it isn’t well sung – it’s bel canto after all – and this production is truly blessed. At the helm is maestro Andrea Molino, in whose hands an old warhorse emerges as a frisky young filly. Leaving nothing to routine, he shapes and invigorates each phrase and whips up all the right Rossinian storms (including of course the storm itself, which wittily features Almaviva cycling in a wind tunnel). The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra and the OA male chorus deliver cracking accounts as well – the men don’t just sound good, they really are funny with characters full of individual detail.

Warwick Fyfe and Paolo Borgogna © Keith Saunders

It’s also fair to say that no Barber will thrive without a decent barber and OA have struck absolute gold in Paolo Bordogna, probably the best sung, certainly the best acted Figaro I can recall. The Italian buffo has all the notes – check out the focussed, ringing top in Largo al factotum – but he doesn’t just sing it, he acts with the voice right on through the text. His barber is cheeky, smart, clever, winning and very, very, funny. Your eyes are glued to him whenever he is onstage. His physicality is a dream, no moment over or under-judged, and the level of invention is sky-high. His foil is American tenor Kenneth Tarver, one of the world’s leading Rossini tenors. He makes a dapper, bespectacled Almaviva in white pinstripes and spats and delivers a stunning account of his tricky opening aubade, Ecco, ridente in cielo. Tarver has a laser beam of a voice, but there’s plenty of bloom around it as well and his roulades and decorations are faultless. By the time he and Bordogna got to their lengthy ‘cunning plan’ duet (and in the wrong hands it can seem a marathon), many in the audience might have thought they’d died and gone to bel canto heaven.

Anna Dowsley and Paolo Borgogna © Keith Saunders

As the resourceful Rosina, mezzo-soprano Anna Dowsley makes another distinguished role debut for OA. A gifted actor with a silvery voice flecked with copper overtones, she is absolutely right in the part, playing the savvy young woman with charm and ebullience. Her Una voce poco fa is subtly shaped, never overly flash, with all the top notes securely in place. She might have more fun with the bottom register, but that will most likely come in time. Her jailor-cum-guardian is Warwick Fyfe, another fine comedian and able to really sing the role (unlike the typical aging buffo you sometimes get here). His Bartolo is full of ideas – a creepy cross between a baritonal Kenneth Williams and Blakey from On the Buses (remember him?). He’s both a loathsome, preening wooer and everyone’s nightmare of a medical practitioner.

David Parkin and Warwick Fyfe © Keith Saunders

David Parkin makes a youngish, oily Basilio, singing with great beauty even as he raises an electrical storm during a fine La calunnia. His voice is easy at the top, rich and full at the bottom. Jane Ede is a memorable Berta, full of silent funny business as Bartolo’s nurse. Her aria, when it comes, is delivered with considerable style. Samuel Dundas isn’t just a rich-voiced Fiorello, he’s a compelling comic presence as Bartolo’s brain-fried servant Ambrogio, lurking around the house like a cross between Rocky Horror’s Riff Raff and Buster Keaton on smack.

During the last 50 years, so much has been rediscovered and developed in terms of what we know as the bel canto period, imbuing it with new-found respect and producing a generation of singers and conductors who have learned to do it full justice. This magnificent revival delivers Rossini’s score with glorious musical integrity while showing just how much fun you can have into the bargain. This Barber is no cheap shave – it’s tonsorial luxury with pampering and hot towels thrown in.

The Barber of Seville is at the Sydney Opera House until March 22.


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