★★★½☆ Slick design and charismatic comedy carries this staging of Rossini’s romantic farce.

Chapel off Chapel, Melbourne
June 6, 2016

The importance of chamber opera companies in Australia really can’t be overstated. Small, often scrappy, but driven by an unmatched passion for the art form, these intrepid organisations exhibit three incredibly valuable traits: the resourcefulness to stage works on the smell of an oily rag; the curiosity to discover neglected gems that don’t often find favour with the larger companies; and an enthusiasm for showcasing young talent. This may not be the formula for a completely flawless evening of opera, but nonetheless, it’s a combo that represents an absolutely vital cornerstone in the foundations of the operatic tradition in Australia.

One such company is Melbourne’s Lyric Opera, whose production of Rossini’s neglected opera buffa, Il Signor Bruschino, showed savvy and style, albeit with some dog-eared edges. This 75 minute, one-act farce is less of a well-rounded wheeze than La Barbier de Séville, and it certainly doesn’t have anywhere near the musical sophistication of Guillaume Tell, but there’s still plenty of charm to be found in this cheeky romance and its chirpy score.

The cast of Lyric Opera’s Il Signore Bruschino

Sofia and Florville are in love. Young, passionate and desperate to be together, there’s just one snag: Florville’s recently deceased father was the sworn rival of Sofia’s, Gaudenzio. Not only is their love forbidden, but Sofia has been betrothed to a man she’s never met, the son of a wealthy gent, Signore Bruschino. With just their cunning wits to aid them, the pair hatch a plan to circumnavigate this arranged marriage and bamboozle their way to wedded bliss.

As soon as you enter the performance space at Chapel off Chapel, a slick but simple design, placing the action in the (almost) round, speaks to a thoughtful approach from director Lara Kerestes and her creative team. Monochromatic staging is contrasted by vibrant, block-coloured costumes, pairing 1960’s tailoring with 1980’s audacity. By transplanting this opera into an upmarket clothing boutique, fashion becomes a central motif, adding a subtle nod to the fickle passions of passing fads that, much like young love, are all-consuming one day and forgotten the next.

As is often the case with productions of this level, the cast’s abilities are somewhat variable. Rebecca Rashleigh as Sofia is a genuine pleasure to watch, offering an impressively voiced and skillfully acted account that comfortably navigated Rossini’s more virtuosic moments. Shanul Sharma showed less consistency in the role of Florville. An impressively focused top range was let down by a rather reedy lower voice, but his charismatic acting helped to paste over these cracks.

As the two patriarchs, Signor Bruschino and Gaudenzio, Bruce Raggat and Matt Thomas were wisely unprecious about their vocals, focusing on the ample comedy their characters deliver. This English translation wasn’t always the most sympathetic match for Rossini’s typically knotty scherzos, but both performers were able to keep the important storytelling intelligible without being tripped up by these tongue twisters.

Rebecca Rashleigh with Jasper Ly

Raphael Wong, a familiar face on Melbourne’s opera circuit, brought his fine baritone to the supporting role of Filiberto, the Inn Keeper. His clear diction and resonant singing added an appropriate tinge of severity to this earnest character. As Gaudenzio’s doting assistant Mariana, Genevive Dickson almost nailed the not-so-casual misty-eyed adoration of her largely silent role, although occasionally this became a bit overly hammy and physically awkward. Bernie Leon made a very favourable impression in the minor role of the Police Commissioner, although he could perhaps have a made a little more of his corrupt wheeling and dealing.

Conductor Pat Miller has assembled a skilled band, but particular mention must go to Jasper Ly’s astonishing Cor Anglais performance. In one of the most comically brilliant directions of the production, Ly casually joins Rashleigh on stage, bow tie undone, shirt unbuttoned. Playing from memory, he becomes Sofia’s personal Pied Piper, bewitching Signor Bruschino into believing some silly ruse. It’s bright, clever direction like this that really shows off why companies like Melbourne’s Lyric are such an important proving ground for directors, singers and instrumentalists at every point in their professional development.

Lyric Opera presents Il Signor Bruschino, at Chapel off Chapel until Juen 12.


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