views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Il Barbiere di Siviglia
Off Quay
31st January 2017


The ensemble of Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Photography © Richard Lakos

Given Il Barbiere di Siviglia started touring last summer, it's fair to say I've waited quite some time to see this particular production. Was it worth the wait? Hell, yes. The company manage to capture the intention of Rossini's original work whilst opening it up to audiences who may never have enjoyed an opera in their lives. Musical director Berrak Dyer ensures there's no dumbing down as far as the music goes - the singers all have beautiful, controlled voices and incredible ranges and the pianist (Richard Leach) provides superb accompaniment. However, to make it easy to follow, the dress is modern, the expressions highly exaggerated and the projected translations in English not only getting the gist but evoking laughs through their sheer irreverence. If only all opera was like this.

Counselled by his mate Figaro (Tom Stoddart), who happens to be the hairstylist in the title, a very smitten Almaviva (Ciaran O'Leary) decides to court Rosina (Katie Slater) whilst dressed up as poor student called Lindoro. Because nothing has ever gone wrong in a comedy involving hidden identities and disguises ever. Sure thing, boys. Rosina's guardian, Bartolo (James Schouten) is keen to wed the young girl himself in a move that is, well, #creepy. What follows is two hours of hashtags, paraphrasing and costumed capers, all witnessed by Bartolo's increasingly world-weary housekeeper Berta (Emily Blanch) whose workload seems to increase with every attempt by Almaviva to sneak his way into Bartolo and Rosina's home.

Once the action gets in full swing, it becomes fast, light-hearted and downright farcical at times. The comedic tone is helped by the silent movie style captions which stick two fingers up at accuracy in favour of summing up the spirit of the words. A few exceptions are made for more serious arias like Fredda ed immobile come una statua, but for the most part, the lyrics are paraphrased and played around with using an obvious linguistic skill. Italian speakers will chuckle at some of the choices made, however no knowledge of the language or indeed the opera itself are required to appreciate the jokes.

Pop Up Opera rarely stay put for long in any one location, leaving stage director James Hurley the challenge of making each temporary venue feel like it's where the production truly belongs. Having already visited a tunnel shaft, a museum and a vineyard, this reclaimed warehouse is par for the course really, with Hurley making good use of the available space. During a chaotic fight scene in which Bartolo and Almaviva chase each other, we catch a glimpse of Schouten barricaded in a side room housing a temporary art installation. When Rosina's music teacher Basilio (Steven East) makes his exit complaining of ill health, we see East slowly shuffling toward the far side of the warehouse floor rather than taking the most obvious stage exit, with Hurley giving him as long a journey as possible to draw out the humour of his departure.

Rather than use bulky sets that are site specific and awkward to transport, Hurley gives the focus to Harry Percival's cheeky captions. These are projected onto two screens for the audiences to read. Costumes are kept modern - well, ish - with East strutting around like he's from the 1970s and Stoddart dressed in a bright red Adidas tracksuit. The tone is set for humour as soon as Stoddart strolls onto the stage, absent-mindedly singing the instantly recognisable lyrics of his character's own name from Largo al factotum. Stoddart spots a member of the audience in a similarly bright red get up and stares at him in shock; "Papa?" A simple piece of improvisation, but one which neatly demonstrates his quick-thinking and commitment to his character. The only issue with all the madness is we find ourselves having to regularly turn and twist our necks in ways they shouldn't be twisted.

The first time that O'Leary sings of Almaviva's love for Rosina in Ecco, ridente in cielo is a special moment in which the sheer emotion of the song overwhelms us and we have goosebumps. However, Schouten and Slater prove themselves to be more versatile performers, imbuing their every number with a slightly different emotion, keeping us engaged thanks to the many ups and downs. Although the cast alternate, it does seem hard to imagine the roles owned by any other performers. Rationally, having seen most of them before, I'm sure they're just as capable, it's just this first lot do the job to an exceptionally high standard.

There's very little hair cutting in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, but there is guaranteed to be plenty of laughter. With very few chances remaining to see this production by Pop Up Opera before it finally closes, make sure you pop along before they pop off.

Il Barbiere di Siviglia opened on 1st June 2016 and runs until 19th February 2017 in and around London. (Upcoming London dates are 12th, 15th and 19th February 2017.)

Nearest tube station: East India (DLR)

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