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A barber of quality: Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

A barber of quality

The Barber of Seville
New Zealand Opera
In Wellington until July 6
Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

Like most comic opera, The Barber of Seville has an essentially ludicrous plot, one that relies heavily on flimsy disguises, unlikely contrivances, midnight rendezvous and broad stereotypes. This New Zealand Opera production doesn’t try to fight the silliness but instead turns it all the way up to 11. It’s a deliberately over the top, knowingly outrageous production – and they pull it off brilliantly.

The tone is set right from the overture, where the famous staccato lines end with a kind of comic-effect lurch, and apart from some out-of-time French horn notes, all is sharp, brisk and robust. On stage the set is a riot of doors, windows, stairs and strange entrances. Aside from a line of slightly cardboard-looking doors strung across the top, it’s a fitting backdrop to the opera’s madcap antics.

There are nice touches throughout. Members of the chorus, all clad in bright red, who were wandering through the foyer even before the performance started, later get lost on their way to the stage. Pretty soon we meet Count Almaviva in the form of John Tessier, who has a lovely, youthful timbre to his voice and a light comic touch. In a black-quiffed wig and – later – little circular sunglasses, he undeniably resembles a Grease-era version of his near namesake John Travolta.

Before long, of course, it’s time for the main entrance: Figaro. The splendid Morgan Pearse arrives as he means to go on, in a whirl of knowing winks, subtle hip thrusts and jazz hands. Combining the energy (and hairstyle) of Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice with the uniform of a 1970s disco corporal, he puts the camp back in aide-de-camp. And, crucially, his voice, both powerful and flexible, has impact to match.

In general the acting, whether individually or collectively, is superb. (I sometimes think what a far cry it all is from the ‘Golden Age’ of opera singers who, even if they had superb voices, were often such wooden actors, judging by the recordings.) I can’t recall a recent production with better physical comedy. Absolutely outstanding is Jesse Wikiriwhi – and it’s no surprise to read he has a strong dance background. Ambrogio may be a minor character, but Wikiriwhi turns him into a shuffling, bouffant-haired, half-menacing and half-lovable servant, impossible to miss whether dusting with a trembling hand or getting attached upside down to a chandelier.

Andrew Collis’s Dr Bartolo is likewise excellent, more doddering old man than menacing guardian, and he has an especially good scene with Ashraf Sewailam as Don Basilio in the famous (and delightfully plot-irrelevant) aria ‘La Calunnia’. A slightly hysterical comedy emerges as the two men end up swaying jerkily in time to Basilio’s base plans. Meanwhile the orchestra, excellent throughout, echo the action with some extra-comic horn lines.

Sewailam’s voice, rich and resonant, deserves special mention. But there is no letup in the quality. As Rosina, Sandra Piques Eddy combines a liquid, flowing tone with exuberant musical comedy (even if at times, for instance in the strangled low notes in ‘Una Voce Poco Fa’, it verges on being just a touch too much). Morag Atchison as Berta is under-used, her character much less strongly drawn in comic terms, but even so her one solo manages to be both poignant and boisterous.

All around the main characters, the chorus are revelling in the chance to clown about on stage. They do ludicrous things with maracas, point their hands and prance around, and – led by Ambrogio – even indulge in some mass slow-walking. And they do so in an ambience of lurid colours that recall the bright greens, reds and blues of childhood jelly desserts.

I didn’t think anything could top last year’s L’elisir d’amore, and indeed I’m not sure the singing nor the staging was quite as stratospherically good, but the manic creativity and all-round quality on display here make for an exceptionally good evening. In fact New Zealand Opera seems to have struck a rich vein of success with comedies. While I was underwhelmed by its recent renditions of La Boheme and Katya Kabanova, the above two productions, along with The Mikado, have been unambiguous successes. I don’t know what the magic formula is, exactly, but I hope they bottle it, and bring it out again in 2020.

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