Believe it or not, there are a couple of friendly ghosts hovering over James Meek’s revival of Peter Knapp’s version of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville for Impact Opera. These are W S Gilbert and Cole Porter. Beaumarchais’ original play is distinctly in the foreground as well.
The whole point of this “highlights” production is to make it accessible for a non-specialist audience, especially one which has never been to the opera before. So the recitatives are ditched, the orchestration is reduced – the 14-piece ensemble is on-stage throughout – and the action is updated to 1930s Spain, just as the Civil War breaks out.
It works very well as a musical comedy. Bartolo is a hotel proprietor (guests under 60 actively discouraged), Basilio (Martin Nelson) becomes an even-slimier-than-usual fixer (he obviously going to cosy up to Franco very quickly) and Almaviva is a young English peer who saw Rosina in Paris and has followed her to her hometown. The nifty footwork (Lynn Costenbarder) has classic G&S influences, while Melanie Long’s Berta delivers her second act aria with a syncopated swing.
What’s more, these mainly young performers can all sing as well as act. Viscount Lindsey (Phillip Conway-Brown]) loses both his initial cavatina and final scene rondo (this goes to Rebecca Knight’s Rosina. Richard Suart’s choleric Bartolo substitutes “Pale hand I loved beside the Shalimar” for his usual arietta – but there’s precedent for this; didn’t Melba sometimes sing “The last rose of summer” in the music lesson scene?
Running jokes include Ambroigo as Manuel from Faulty Towers and a brace of long-legged hotel maids (Lea Bourne and Anna McNicholas) who also turn up as the most fetching pair of naval ratings you’re ever likely to encounter (cue an exuberant can-can). I did wonder, when everything else is in English (with the logical exception of Rosina’s “Contro un cor” aria), why on earth Jochem van Ast delivers Figaro’s introductory “Largo al factotum” in Sterbini’s original Italian?
If you’re an operatic purist, you’ll probably not like this type of staging. But if you’re someone who wants to come to grips for the first time with what is (for me, at any rate) that magical fusion of music and drama which we call opera then – both as a way-in to an art form too often seen as “difficult” or (dreaded word) “elitist” and as sheer entertainment – you’ll enjoy it. I know that I did.