Rossini’s The Barber of Seville is perhaps the greatest opera buffa ever written; jam-packed with arias which are as intelligent as they are irresistibly hummable (and great showpieces for singers), and an entirely absurd plot adapted from Beaumarchais’ play of the same name with great wit by librettist Cesare Sterbini. But if you can hear the overture to Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and not think of Bugs Bunny every single time, you’re a more sophisticated audience member than I.
There’s a reason why Looney Tunes picked The Barber of Seville as the focus for one of their most memorable episodes back in 1950 — there are few scores which are so dynamic within the limitations of consistently fast tempi, conjuring up such an array of emotional landscapes in the space of just a few minutes.
Elijah Moshinsky’s 1995 production for Opera Australia (remounted with precision and joy by revival director Hugh Halliday) takes a similarly cartoonish approach, from the broad physical comedy and delightful characterisations to Michael Yeargan’s oversized dolls house set and Dona Granata’s ever-so-slightly overplayed 1920s chic costumes.
It’s rare to see 21-year-old productions looking so fresh, but everything in this one feels like it could have been dreamed up this year. It’s not been seen in four years, but I’d wager there’s another few rounds left in this Barber.
Moshinsky has updated the action to the 1920s, and although there’s no location specified it feels like it could be Seville meets New Orleans. There are lots of clever touches in the staging, with a hilarious silent film-inspired storm sequence in the middle of the second act.
Out front as the titular barber is Paolo Bordogna, who is completely at home hamming it up for the crowd, particularly in Figaro’s famous introductory aria. He unleashes the same bold, thick and richly coloured baritone heard in last year’s The Marriage of Figaro to great effect (he’s really a Figaro for all seasons), but is just at home in the lighter, lightning-fast, tongue-twisting patter phrases.
Anna Dowsley finally gets to wear some frocks as Rosina, after playing trouser roles for most of last year. She really is perfectly cast in the role: youthful, full of spark and spunk, and a great sense of comedic timing. I’d be very surprised if she doesn’t become OA’s new favourite young mezzo for comedies. It’s also an excellent vocal performance, and her first aria showcases the full capabilities of her voice — full of fast runs and sudden turns.
As Count Almaviva, Kenneth Tarver has some of the big vocal party pieces and he executes them gorgeously with his agile and very attractive tenor. His comedic performance is perhaps a little one-note, but he admirably dives into the mayhem head-first.
Warwick Fyfe is absolutely in his element as the hapless and insanely jealous Dr Bartolo. It’s one of the best physical performances on stage — a complete transformation thanks to the costume, make up and wig.
And there are superb supporting performances from Jane Ede as Bartolo’s housekeeper (or in this version, the nurse for his surgery) who has a good 60 minutes of nothing but physical comedy, and David Parkin as a very hammy Don Basilio. Samuel Dundas appears in a variety of guises and wins plenty of laughs as Ambrogio, Bartolo’s heavy-smoking, Lurch-like servant.
Conductor Andrea Molino keeps the pace up and leads the orchestra through a thrilling rendition of the overture (the strings delivering a masterclass in dynamics and expression) although there are occasional imbalances between the pit and the singers on stage, with some voices not carrying over the orchestra.
But this is a sacrifice made so that the physical and comedic side of the production can sparkle, and it’s entirely worth it. This is a production that reminds that comedic operas were meant to be fun and unruly, and they were meant to be funny. It’s what Rossini would have wanted.