The marriage of opera and comedy is one of the essential joys of the musical world, and as such, it was gratifying to see West Australian Opera return to the stage of His Majesty’s Theatre for 2021 with such a delightful opera as Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, The Barber of Seville. An evening of wonderful chaos, the production was full of pure comedic energy from beginning to end, underpinned by a bold sense of style, which proved a treat for the eyes as well as the ears.
The production itself, a co-production between Opera Queensland, Seattle Opera and New Zealand Opera, directed by Lindy Hume, was an excellent choice for revival; the vibrant styling and madcap action complemented Rossini’s music and Beaumarchais’ plot to allow for maximum comic effect. Set and costume designer Tracy Grant Lord’s Seville was particularly impressive, capturing the essence of the opera and adding a dash of surrealism to create a doll’s house-like world, full of nooks, crannies and entrepreneurial barbers.
The cast of The Barber of Seville, West Australian Opera, 2021. Photograph © James Rogers
The entrance of the Barber himself, played by baritone James Clayton, shattered the fourth wall, as he burst loudly through the back door of the stalls, apologising for his late arrival, much to the chagrin of the technical crew, who made an appearance on stage themselves. It seemed however that this broken boundary was mostly ignored for the rest of the show, which was disappointing given the intriguing start. Seemingly embedded in the zeitgeist of the 1980s, Clayton’s Figaro resembled a purple pirate with plaits, the entertaining lovechild of Adam Ant and Axl Rose. The iconic Largo al factorum was full of energy, complete with Scooby-Doo style doorway traversals. All this moving around perhaps did not work in favour of the music, as there were a few moments where singer and orchestra were not together, which resolved whenever Clayton reappeared on stage.
The Barber of Seville is truly a character work, and none embodied the buffa style more than Dr Bartolo, played by Warwick Fyfe. Delightfully disgusting, Fyfe’s portrayal of the toad-like surgeon was genuinely hilarious, combining vocal acting with deliberate physicality to create a character who made the audience laugh and reel in their seats at the same time. Another who excelled in their comedic acting despite barely saying a word was Brendan Hanson’s Ambrogio. Constantly lurking in the background, each of his movements was primed for comic effect, whether it be entering doorways backwards, getting stuck swinging from a chandelier or mis-wielding spatulas. Robert Hofmann must also be commended on his performance as the somewhat slimy Don Basilio, who was the perfect counterpart to Bartolo, in terms of his character, singing ability and stage presence, not to mention his excellent hat.
The cast as a whole were a great ensemble and the duets, trios and quartets in particular shone musically, as the singers worked off and with each other, seeming a lot more at ease than during some of the earlier solo moments. A particular highlight was seeing Michael Petruccelli as Count Almaviva, disguised as the priest Don Alonso, working with Brigitte Heuser’s Rosina at the beginning of the second act. The pair built off each other’s energy, and, with the interjections of Fyfe’s Bartolo, the scene embodied the vibrancy of the opera as a whole. It was also a treat seeing young WAO regulars Naomi Johns and Lachlann Lawton take to the roles of Berta and Fiorello/Officer, having watched them emerge from the ranks of the Chorus over the years.
The West Australian Symphony Orchestra was as tight and professional as always, easily matching the tone and tempo of the action on stage, led by conductor Burhan Güner. The WAO Chorus flitted in and out amongst scenes, at times producing their own comic moments. The men’s chorus at the beginning was particularly entertaining, as they portrayed a heavily unbalanced serenade band, complete with their own maraca dance routine.
This was a performance for all to enjoy, whether they’re well-versed in the opera world or not. An evening full of laughs and entertainment, WAO’s performance of The Barber of Seville was a fine example of the joy opera can instil, whilst showcasing the comedic talents of some of Australia’s best.
The Barber of Seville plays at His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth until 24 April