Wide Open Opera at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, on 20 April 2016

After taking us on the high road for the past four years by producing high-concept music dramas (Tristan und Isolde, Nixon in China, Barry’s Importance of Being Earnest, The Last Hotel…), Wide Open Opera turns around and produces this. Is it the ultimate stunt? Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Sivigla – The Barber of Seville – with its flashy tunes and basic storyline (boy wants girl, girl wants out of dire situation and sees boy as the answer, they win) is hardly ever going to be a head-scratcher, no matter how abstract the director’s concept. Traditionally a company would attempt to create a platform by producing popular work first before going onto harder material, rather than going the other way around, and so it is interesting to see WOO’s strategy at work, as ever twinning artistic integrity with careful pragmatism.

The show itself looks superb. The production, at last, is Wide Open Opera’s own rather than a co-produced hand-me-down, and this allows for more theatrical assurance and a clearer focus than on previous occasions. Directed by Michael Barker-Caven and designed by Jamie Vartan, we are transported to the Seville of 1970’s Spain, complete with a poster of General Franco, authentic period graffiti promising ‘venceremos’ (we will overcome!), and great costumes. Doctor Bartolo (Graeme Danby) runs the ‘Bartolo Music Studio’ with all the bullying venom associated with the darker end of the music industry. His star performer, contractually imprisoned in a fascist country, is poor Rosina (Tara Erraught, of whom more later). Having transformed the original setting of domestic confinement, the production has to reinforce the idea of Rosina’s imprisonment by all other means, which leads sometimes to an excess of ideas on stage.

Gavan Ring, sporting impressive flares and a Kevin Keegan hairdo, makes for an athletic Figaro. Bounding across the stage with spirited energy, he clearly relishes the broad humour – and fiendish musicality – of his draw-card aria ‘Largo al factotum’. The Count Almaviva of Tyler Nelson is similarly fun to watch, and as ever it is a pleasure to see Brendan Collins producing yet two more of his priceless cameos (as Almaviva’s side-kick Fiorello, and the nameless ‘Officer’). John Molloy does what he can with the lean comical meat of Don Basilio, producing a character of serene guile, while Mary O’Sullivan’s Berta reminds us what a terrific soprano she is in the Act II aria ‘Il vecchiotto cerca moglie’.

There are no weak links, but one certainly stands out as stronger than the rest. As if we needed reminding, the main point of this production is to welcome Tara Erraught home, as she finally makes her Irish stage debut and also her 25th performance as Rosina. Her experience in this role, as well as her superb technique, is reflected in almost every note she sings. She brings a level of detail and depth to this music that is a step ahead of everyone else involved, and this alone is fascinating to observe. Her performance is like a master-class in bel canto singing. Erraught includes the Act II aria ‘Ah se è ver’ that Rossini inserted for a later revival. It not only adds a further perspective to the role and the drama as a whole, but – composed for a slightly higher voice – also allows us to hear the fine quality of her top register.

Hearing her also leaves one wanting more from the drama, which is not helped by the way the audience is distanced from the stage in the generous, airport-sized space of the Bord Gáis Theatre. Having said that, though, the night flows on enjoyably, and Fergus Sheil smoothly conducts the excellent Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera. After the close, the full audience stream out into the beautiful spring night refreshed, and ready for more.

Programme:

Gioacchino Rossini: Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Libretto: Cesare Sterbini (in Italian)

Director: Michael Barker-Caven; Set & Costume Designer: Jamie Vartan; Lighting Designer: Sinéad Wallace; Conductor: Fergus Sheil

Cast: Gavan Ring (Figaro); Tara Erraught (Rosina); Tyler Nelson (Count Almaviva); Graeme Danby (Dr Bartolo); John Molloy (Don Basilio); Mary O’Sullivan (Berta); Brendan Collins (Fiorello/Officer); Conor Breen (Ambrogio)

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