Garden Opera: The Barber of Seville


On Friday 11 September, to Garden Opera at Ravenscourt Park, London W6 – the very last performance of their summer-long season, and the only one we could get to!

The weather was kind – not too chilly, and it didn’t rain.  The setting was a lovely peaceful enclosed space, disturbed only by the occasional District Line train and the enthusiastic intervention of some local parakeets.  Handy tea-shop before the performance, loos rather a long dash in the interval…  The audience we presume were mostly local:  pretty much a full house, appreciative and animated.

The opera was Rossini’s BARBER OF SEVILLE, in a very simple, slick and extremely funny production by Katharina Wienecke.  The action was set in ‘Dr Bartolo’s Circus’, seemingly an odd idea but it worked very well, with Rosina ‘The Singing Bird’ (in a cage, of course) as the star attraction, her disgruntled guardian Dr Bartolo a retired animal-tamer, and Basilio an unlikely magician, forever producing scarves, flowers and magic wands from a variety of orifices.  Count Almaviva and Figaro the barber survived relatively unscathed from Rossini’s (or his librettist’s) original conception.  Occasional inconsistencies (Dr Bartolo was required to be a physician after all, to match the text of his patter-aria) either didn’t impinge or were turned into sources of comedy.  And, as in the best Barber performances, there were moments of (almost) genuine pathos.

The show took forever to get going, partly because of interminable if well-intentioned announcements from a distinguished local worthy (over incessant pre-recorded fairground organ music);  then the Overture started as another fairground organ piece, gradually morphing into the ‘live’ orchestra of Peter Bridges and his small but perfectly formed circus band (flute doubling clarinet, trumpet doubling flugelhorn – David Clewlow, no less – plus two violins, cello and the maestro himself on piano).  At long last the opera itself began;  the first scene (even without the chorus) does seem interminable, but that is Rossini’s fault. 

Once the show got up steam, there was no stopping it:  the profusion of sight gags, jokes, hilarious dialogue and text (busked up from Amanda and Anthony Holden’s old ENO singing translation, though with some changes, not always for the better?) kept the show bouncing along in high spirits.  I particularly enjoyed some of the in-jokes:  ‘Somebody’s knocking, who can it be?  (The cast’s all here!)’

Despite the exigencies of such a small company, musical standards were extremely high and without compromise:  apart from the excision of the chorus and some minor characters, remarkably few cuts were made.  As always, the show was double-cast, so I can only comment on the version we saw.  I’d guess that some other performances must have been distinctly different!

Alexander Anderson-Hall was Almaviva;  though his voice at first sounded unpromising, he could certainly deliver the notes, and he disclosed an unsuspected vein of comedy, especially in his Les-Dawson-inspired ‘granny’ disguise as the singing teacher ‘Donna Alonsa’ in Act II, with her knitting and tin of corned beef. 

Figaro was Simon Lobelson, a singer I had not encountered before:  a natural communicator with a fine voice and a quick wit, he commanded the stage whenever he was on it (in spivvy black leather, looking disconcertingly like David McVicar).

Serena Kay as Rosina was a delight, wide-eyed and bubbly, evidently having a whale of a time despite her colourful but somehow un-sexy costume.  (Mercifully she jettisoned the awful ‘singing bird’ wig at the earliest opportunity.)  And she sang some impressive coloratura too.

Bartolo was Adam Miller (who on other nights had been singing Figaro:  there’s versatile!)  Another fine performer, with splendid diction and a great line in irritated helplessness.

And Deryck Hamon as Don Basilio – last seen as Garden Opera’s Don Pasquale a year ago – was a hoot, all arms and legs and magical surprises despite his lugubrious Scots delivery.

A special mention for Nick Ash, who began the show as an impressively uniformed but hangdog programme seller (and remover of unwanted ladders), and reappeared as the Chief of Police, a pivotal role (the answer to ‘Somebody’s knocking, who can it be?’…) – speaking his few lines instead of singing them, but very effective and funny, especially in his simpering grovel when he learns Count Almaviva’s true identity.  He was nowhere mentioned in the programme, apparently because he was booked after they had gone to press (one of the perils of a long season fixed well in advance, I guess).  Well done that man!

I haven’t done justice to all the fun and games and the sheer enjoyment of the evening – another triumph for Garden Opera.  Long may they continue!  Here’s to next season…

Many thanks to Lucy for fixing the tickets, and to Diana for her company again (and the picnic!)

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