Opera Australia: The Barber of Seville
An Opera Conference production. Opera Australia. At the State Theatre, Melbourne, until May 12. Then Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth.
It’s an opera company’s worst nightmare. It’s first night of a heavily-hyped crowd-pleaser production -- Opera Australia has even been advertising it on talk radio -- and the hero, our barber of Seville, has “severe laryngitis.” Scratched.
But it’s not just first night in Melbourne. It’s first night of Opera Australia’s 2007 season here... as close to a black tie night as you’re likely to find in the theatre. But the tux you don’t want to see is the one on the stage before the curtain. You might as well walk on with a black armband.
The harried Opera Australia Chief Executive, Adrian Collette, might hail from Melbourne, but to the eternally and indiscriminately bitter Melbourne opera establishment, Collette is not an ex-pat so much as a turncoat. And here he is announcing that the understudy, Perth lad Luke Gabbedy, is replacing Argentine-born superstud José Carbó as Figaro. And that Tom Hamilton, in turn, will fill in for Gabbedy as the Count’s servant Fiorello.
L-R: Warwick Fyfe, Jack Webster and Richard Alexander
as Dr Bartolo, Ambrogio and Don Basilio
It’s first night of a brand new production. An opera conference production which will be seen in Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth. So, guess what? Gabbedy hasn’t had a rehearsal to himself in the lead role. There hasn’t been time. And he’s only had a day’s notice.
But aside from the fact that he’s a bit soft on the ear -- and looks more like the bus-boy of Seville than Rossini’s wheeling, dealing factotum -- he does a creditable job. Where Carbó might have whipped us into a frenzy, Gabbedy whipped us into soft peaks. (Think clean, I’m talking cream -- or egg whites -- okay? Meringue, that sorta thing!)
Just like The History Boys with Rhys McConnochie in the lead instead of Richard Griffiths... not wrong, just diffident... I mean different.
Actually, Gabbedy’s baritone meshed beautifully -- and I mean really exquisitely -- with Henry Choo’s tenor. Now, it’s possible that Choo was holding back to match his voice to Gabbedy’s, but Choo didn’t sing with enough definition for my liking. I also wondered, vaguely, how Gabbedy would have coped as Fiorello, a role for a bass-baritone at the very least. I’ve seen Gabbedy in a couple of West Australian Opera and OA productions in the last couple of years and I can’t say I’ve heard that end of his range.
Choo and Emma Matthews were also exceptionally good together as the would-be lovers. Their first duet (in which Choo is accompanied by a guitar, and Matthews by a harp) is invested with such longing...
Henry Choo (Almaviva) & Emma Matthews (Rosina)
And, in case you’re wondering, yes, a soprano has been cast as Rosina, one of the great mezzo roles. It’s a ring-in that was done early and often in the life of Rossini’s comic opera... with much “high flying decoration”. It’s not a choice that’s been taken up all that often in Australia thanks to Suzanne Johnston! For about 20 years, the knee-jerk reaction was: why would you cast anyone else?
Matthews, yet again, sang with supernatural accuracy. It seems so damn easy... it could pass unremarked. Warwick Fyfe was terrific too, like some green coated penguin as Doctor Bartolo. (In this particular production, Bartolo covets his ward more than her money. He might even be in love with her.)
Richard Bonynge does a good job wielding the stick. This is one of his better gigs. Not dazzling, just reliably on the money. All up, this was a modest performance. That’s not intended as a backhander. Really. It was easy rather than showy.
But enough about the music. (No, I can’t believe I said it either!) This is a superb piece of comic theatre with an extravagantly designed and brilliantly executed set.
The ambitions of the production are laid out in the overture as the sick and variously injured patients of Doctor Bartolo make their way into his sanatorium. One by one, they sign in -- cause for much jolly mime as the braced and broken matadors juggle a clipboard and pen -- and have thermometers poked into their mouths.
There’s an old bloke and his exotic fur-draped wife -- who totters around and, for a moment, chases her tail -- and a mad Daliesque artist. Right away it’s clear that these folks can move and act... seriously well.
L-R: Lisle Jones, Leon Byrant, Simon Brett,
Cameron Mannix & Melissa Madden-Gray
It took a good twenty minutes to recognise Melissa Madden Gray as the tail chaser. (Hey, I was almost twenty rows back, okay?) Talk about luxury casting. This is a performer who has had several multimedia operas commissioned for her -- for her body and extraordinary voice -- at Princeton. She’s an accomplished dancer and actor as well. And we have her in a mute role. Wow!
The chorus of extras come and go. They sit upstairs at a balcony sipping coffee and watching the world go by in their Health Spa time-warp. Without ever distracting us from the main action, they add a wonderful texture and theatricality.
Apart from the actors, and Emma Matthews, the star of the show is the huge set, designed by 24 year-old WAAPA graduate Leon Krasenstein. (And it’s a design he did two years ago, just after his graduation.) It’s a mix of Antoni Gaudí and gaudy guignol with its gargoyles and biomorphic chairs -- I swear one of them had shoulder blades and hip bones -- and its complete absence of straight lines. The gnarly woodwork is amazing as are the whirly shell legs on the piano. I cannot imagine how the whole shebang will fit onto the half-pint sized Opera House stage. It didn’t look at all modular.
Mariachi anyone? Henry Choo as Almaviva
That said, John Milson’s production is (I’m guessing) better suited to the intimate size of the Opera Theatre in Sydney. Better still, to His Majesty’s in Perth... which is about as close as our opera houses get to Euro-style playhouses.
All photographs copyright Jeff Busby. Used with permission.