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The Barber of Seville

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire

It’s always a treat to visit English Touring Opera to check on developments since their last outing, and this production of The Barber of Sevillewas no disappointment. The orchestra should be congratulated first, along with the conductor as they delivered the best rendition of the overture I have heard in a long time. It was crafted with great skill, using extremely effective variations in tempo which added much to the shape and language of the music. This fine attention to detail continues throughout the work, with the woodwind playing, particularly the bassoons which sang out with great personality, being worthy to single out for praise.

Thomas Guthrie’s direction is well served by his designer Rhys Jarman, and the lighting by Guy Hoare is very effective, with the backdrop of Seville in the moonlight in the opening Act, and again in the storm scene being particularly effective. Using this portrayal of Seville as it was at about that time was a good way of placing the action in both time and place, adding shadow as it were to the image. Guthrie’s interpretation was totally classical and was well crafted, with just the right amount of added staged humour to carry the work along without dragging it down into farce, which so often happens. It was active without being too busy. The whole production shows that it is possible to be creative even when having to design and light an opera which tours to many varied theatres around the country.

There are no weak links among the cast, but most of them fall into the trap set by the Hackney Empire of not being sufficiently down-stage enough, so their voices are lost in the fly-tower. It is a weakness in what is otherwise a wonderful theatre, and both the director and the singers need to be watchful of it. Kitty Wakeley’s Rosina , Alan Fairs’ polished Don Basilio, and Grant Doyle’s wily Figaro all impress. Nicholas Sharrett’s Count is too understated for the character of a Spanish nobleman of that period and he particularly suffers from the curse of the fly tower. Cheryl Enever plays the thankless role of Berta well, and her voice shows great promise. What shines through the whole piece is a combination of good ensemble stage work coupled with strong musicality. However there is one really big flaw. Rossini is difficult to sing clearly, no matter how good a singer’s diction might be, and although the translation into English helped, many members of the audience voiced their dismay at not being able to hear enough of the words in order to follow what was going on. ETO has used surtitles I believe at the Hackney Empire in the past, and it would be good if they consider re-introducing them again, no matter what language an opera is sung in.

- John Bird



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