After a mesmerising la Boheme to open, the 2017 season of Opera at Iford is going from strength to strength. The witty new Charles Court Opera production of Gioachino Rossini’s Barber of Seville, commissioned by Iford Arts, is nothing short of inspired and breathes new life into one of the most popular and often performed works in the repertoire.
Staged in-the-round of the intimate cloisters, a wonderful architectural feature of the Grade I listed Harold Peto garden belonging to Iford Manor in Bradford-on-Avon, there was much mirth when the audience discovered that the 90-seat space had been transformed by designer Sean Turner into the Wild West, complete with a sign for ‘Bartolo’s Saloon Bar’, a honky-tonk upright piano in the corner and shelves crammed with liquor.
Making a virtue out of this challengingly small stage area, the sense of eavesdropping never leaves the audience thanks to having to peer between the arches of the cloisters, and director John Savournin (also Artistic Director of Charles Court Opera) maximises this to the full, as does Alex Newton with an energetic and enthralling choreography that is a feast for the eyes; from a brazen bosom-heaving prostitute (Andrea Tweedale as Berta), chair-wielding fights, table-top bawls, shot guns being fired and glasses smashing, this isn’t an opera you’re likely to dose off through.
The foot-tapping overture set the tone and all we needed were some swing doors and the Milky Bar Kid to appear. With an original Italian libretto by Cesare Sterbini, based on the Pierre Beaumarchais play of the same name, this version is sung in English, with a wry translation by David Eaton who has incorporated phrases such as ‘a fist full of dollars’ into the lyrics. It’s sheer comedy from beginning to end, with moments reminiscent of ‘Allo ‘Allo! thanks to Richard Suart’s hilarious portrayal of Bartolo, the scheming, lecherous landlord who has designs upon marrying his beautiful heiress niece, Rosina (Samantha Price). Reluctant to let her out of his sight and suspicious of every man who exchanges so much as a word with her, when Count Almaviva (British tenor John-Colyn Gyeantey) becomes smitten with her and decides to pose as the humble ‘Lindoro’ in order to conceal his wealthy status, Bartolo thwarts him at every turn.
Only one man can aid the doomed lovers, cue baritone Philip Smith as everyone’s friend, arch manipulator Figaro, aka ‘Barber of Seville’ – or should that be ‘Barber of Dodge City’? Taking bribes from people left, right and centre on the understanding that there is no crisis he cannot solve, he counts his money greedily and the first half sails by with all the merriment and gusto you could hope for from this infectious Rossini masterpiece, first performed just over two hundred years ago and still as fresh as a daisy when in the right hands.
Figaro persuades Count Almaviva to disguise himself as a soldier billeted to Bartolo’s house, however, Rosina’s uncle is unconvinced and the plan falls apart, leading to yet more disguises and a farce that had most of us gasping for air. In the second half Almaviva has more success when posing as a colleague of Rosina’s music teacher Don Basilio (baritone Matthew Kellett), and plots to run away with his love, however, Bartolo won’t go down without a fight. Mezzo-soprano Samantha Price is a charmingly gutsy Rosina, determined to escape Bartolo’s clutches, whilst putting in a meticulous performance of what is an extremely difficult part, originally intended for a contralto.
David Eaton conducts the Charles Court Opera Chamber Orchestra with just the right tempo, while flautist Helena Gourd deserves special mention for showcasing the beautiful light-heartedness created by her instrument. It’s the most entertaining, joyful production of Barber of Seville I have ever seen or am likely to see, and with only 90 seats at seven performances I feel extremely privileged to have experienced what can only be described as sheer magic. As my guest (also a tenor) observed, this is what opera is all about.
Barber of Seville on selected days until 1st July 2017 as part of Opera at Iford, Iford Manor, Bradford-on-Avon, BA15 2BA. Tickets from £121. Gates open at 6pm for picnics ahead of the 7.30pm performance. Picnics can be brought or ordered in advance. Complimentary tea and coffee is served during the interval. For more information and to book tickets please visit the website.