If you are an opera purist and you think that modern versions of classic operas are a redundant, populistic exercise (why should a perfectly formed thing be modified in any of its perfect parts…?), you may have changed your mind after watching the production of ‘Il barbiere di Siviglia’ by director Michael Barker-Caven for Wide Open Opera.
Instead of sometimes in the 18th century, the scene was set in the Spain of Franco in the ‘70s, with a poster of the dictator on a wall and the writing in red letters ‘Venceremos’. The house of Don Bartolo is here transformed into a ‘music studio’ (‘Studio de Musica Bartolo’) and all the characters wore hippyishly gaudy clothes. Once you turn a blind eye on the main obvious but forgivable inconsistency with the original – the ‘doctor’ Don Bartolo is here transformed in the owner/manager of the recording studio – the rest of the transposition works in fact quite well and not only does not subtract to the original, but possibly adds to it. Once you got over the surprise element and adjusted to the new setting (complete of a hippie van), the music and singing were what really held your attention from the beginning to the end of the show. And what a show!
Rossini’s comic masterpiece, written exactly 200 years ago and in only two weeks, contains absolutely no waste: you won’t be able to find a single low moment in the whole opera, which is a dense sequence of memorable arias and duets and wonderfully lively music. Most of the singers on stage delivered performances which lived up to the expectations, but the absolute star was Tara Erraught in the role of Rosina. She sang flawlessly throughout the evening and she showed a great control of her instrument as typical of a seasoned singer. You could see she had completely digested the role and made it her own, adding the experience to her naturally beautiful and rich mezzo-soprano voice. Even by watching some of her past recordings online of the aria ‘Una voce poco fa’, you can appreciate how much she must have grown artistically in the past two or three years.
Tyler Nelson was a pleasant Count Almaviva with his leggero tenor voice, while Gavan Ring gave a fittingly funny interpretation of Figaro; baritone Brendan Collins stood out in the secondary role of Fiorello.
Two pearls were the arias sung respectively by John Molloy as Don Basilio (‘La calunnia è un venticello’) with his dark bass voice and Mary O’Sullivan as Berta (‘Il vecchiotto cerca moglie’). As for the last, this was the only case you may have felt the costume was not the most appropriate: Berta is an old maid and her only aria clearly refers to this state (“Oh! vecchiaia maledetta! … / Son da tutti disprezzata … E vecchietta disperata / mi convien così crepar); by dressing her in a colourful short dress and high heel boots, this aria loses almost completely its meaning.
Being opera such a composite and sophisticated form of art, putting together a perfectly staged production is no easy feat, but Wide Open Opera did a commendable job here and we certainly hope they’ll continue this way.