Pros: First class singers who inhabit their comic roles with a delightful attitude of unabashed silliness and exaggeration.
Cons: The rather plain set needs a bit of adornment to better house such energetic and rich performances.
OperaUpClose take their art form out of the grand auditorium, economise on the orchestra, construct fresh translations and reimagine old stories in order to present classic operas in intimate spaces. This pared down adaptation of The Barber of Seville exemplifies the elegant simplicity, witty libretto and beautiful orchestration that OperaUpClose has come to embody. Rosina and her suitor have been relocated from Spanish Seville to a more Sense and Sensibility Salisbury in this terribly British 19th century reimagining of Rossini’s romantic comedy. The domesticity of the setting suits the narrative of courtship and deception, and in this golden age of Poldark and Downton Abbey the idealised history of English manners and culture feels very much on trend.
For those unfamiliar with the story, the plot focuses on – in this version – the Marquis of Bath’s attempts to seduce the moneyed Rosina. In this he’s aided by Figaro, his old servant and barber to the who’s who of Salisbury. Rosina’s guardian, however, has other plans, and comedy ensues as the lovers practice disguise and mischief to be together.
The simplicity of the piano accompaniment on stage allows for cabaret style interaction between the singers and the musician; comic moments in this original and witty libretto are manipulated beautifully. The mood is funny and fickle, the audience laughing out loud on more than one occasion. Elspeth Wilkes is terrific as music director, matching the upbeat humour of the cast upstage on piano downstage. Aside from the gorgeous instrument, however, the stage is quite bare, and costumes are very functional as well. I personally would have preferred more indulgent costumes and more colour, just to balance the visual and auditory experience a bit more from the audience perspective. But even though the set looked quite sparse to my eyes, the simple staging (and chairs-on-wheels!) make space for great physical comedy and ludicrous antics.
The Marquis (Philip Lee) and Rosina (Elinor Jane Moran) have wonderful chemistry together. It’s hard to be sincerely sexy when you’re being silly, but they manage to balance cheekiness and desire in perfect measure, so the story still feels like a romance even in the midst of the madness. The whole cast deliver their roles with hilarious gusto, exaggerating characteristics, movements and words without faltering. Like a Carry On, if Carry On were good, and funny, and opera.
JW3 is an impressively modern venue with a smart downstairs café and lovely spacious outdoor area. Nice to have a sit down and a ponder about life. And whether you’re new to opera or a seasoned fan, this production of The Barber of Seville is sure to bring a smile to your face with its joyous raucousness. It’s next on stage in September in Taunton, but if you’re in London over the summer be sure to get a ticket for the OperaUpClose Carmen at Soho Theatre – sure to be a fantastic evening out, and my favourite venue for its lack of pretention. I’ve already booked my ticket, so hurry up and get yours!
Composer: Gioachino Rossini
Director and Librettist: Robin Norton-Hale
Original Musical Director: Alison Luz
Revival Musical Director: Elspeth Wilkes
Costume and Set Designer: Oliver Townsend
Lighting Designer: Richard Williams
Booking Information: This show has now completed its run in London, but will play in Taunton on 12 September.