Welsh National Opera 2021-22 Review: The Barber of Seville
Nico Darmanian & Heather Lowe Shine in Riotous Metanarrative ProductionBy John Vandevert
Amidst the greyish and waterlogged atmosphere of urban sprawl, on October 22nd inside the Hippodrome Theatre, home to one of the largest performance stages in Britain, the atmosphere was anything but.
It was electric and real fun!
Award-winning Director Giles Havergal, in a show of captivating histrionics paired with Rossinian virtuosity, validated the tremendous significance and ongoing legacy of Welsh National Opera in Bristol’s cultural life. A relationship, mind you, that is now over 50+ years in the making, having begun in 1968 with a season including operatic show-stoppers like “Rigoletto,” “Nabucco,” and “The Barber of Seville.”
Reprising his 1986 production for the Autumn 2021 season, Havergal’s “Barber of Seville” introduced a novel, proto-verismo subcurrent into Rossini’s well-beloved opera buffa, whose “Much Ado About Nothing”-esque ethos was treated to an amalgam of play-in-a-play surreality. This type of self-referential aesthetic, dream-in-a-dream alla “Inception (2010),” is rarely seen in live operatic performance and is usually confined to cinematic alternatives like “Farinelli (1994)” and “Marie Antoinette (2006).” But when it’s used in operatic setting, like Mozart’s “Der Schauspieldirektor” and Donizetti’s “Le Convenienze ed Inconvenienze Teatrali,” the latter a satirical documentary about a failed opera in the dramma giocoso style, you’re always promised an interesting time. Havergal chose to transform “Barber” into a metanarrative about the synergetic amorphousness of dramaturgy and reality, asking the question “Where does the opera end and life begin?”
Saturday’s operatic performance of Barber of Seville was led by an all-star cast of virtuosic voices like Nico Darmanin (Almaviva), Nicholas Lester (Figaro), Andrew Shore (Bartolo), and Heather Lowe (Rosina), and the endearing Bristol Choral Society (Men’s Chorus). With the addition of an enthusiastic and unceasingly divine orchestra, the performance was directed under the sagacious baton of Tomáš Hanus. Sonorous melodicism, technical prowess, and tried-and-true Rossinian level Bel-canto lyricism and fragrant prosody seemed to be the presiding theme of the night for performer and musician alike. This was most likely due to the guiding hand of Hanus’ and his phenomenal experience with large-scale unification of musical purpose, where each and every tonus uttered is directed by the collective pursuit of storytelling.
Simply put, his handling of Rossini was not only invigorating to watch but grounding, and visually paternal towards his musical colleagues.
Leading the night’s revelries was Count Almaviva, embodied by the well-established Bel Canto leggiero Nico Darmanian. A simple glance at his extensive biography will show that he’s no stranger to the Baroque dynamism of energetic floridity, intimate lyricism, and everything in between. However, neither is he unversed in the majestic exuberances of Romantic and high-Verismo repertoire.
This indubitably came across in Darmanian’s sophisticated interpretation of Rossini’s spunky Prince-turned-operative of love’s command. His sublime vocal quality was something of absolute wonder, as he managed to standardize organic ease through both dexterous passages of coloratura and broad-stroked lyricism throughout his entire range without, a proverbial trait of the Tenore di grazia. Darmanian’s captivating stage presence, while laudable in its own right, really is due to that sumptuous voice that all echoes lesser-known operatic marvels like Georges Regis and Pyotr Slovtsov who, in well-supported bias, are far superior than other singers’ nasally “brilliance” or wolfy vocabulary. While Act two was great, it was Act one’s “Ecco ridente,” chalk full of leggiero serenity and spotless bravado, and “Se il mio nome,” with its unpretentious artistry, despite being sung in English, that struck me. They were some of the best versions I’ve ever heard in-concert. From messa di voces which floated in space, to cadential zest and improvisatory airs, it was very well done!
The other absolute knock-out of the night was Rosina, sung by Isabella Colbran incarnate herself Heather Lowe, an award-winning mezzo-soprano whose supple pliability and eviscerating comeliness rivals even the greatest of Baroque stars.
Having made a name for herself in pants-roles, known as Travesti, and an eclectic array of highly virtuosic, dramatic, and quintessential classical repertoire, one can say that Lowe is a highly adept musician and in total-control over the facets of her instrument. Lowe’s representation of the precociously mischievous, at-times ethically dubious, and rather morally flawed character of Rosina. Of course, “Una voce poco fa” was Rossinian perfection, and the intense coloratura presented no challenge for Lowe who, while humorously playing with dolls resembling Figaro and Almaviva (an allegory to the game of love), showered the audience with the heart and soul of the “beautiful singing” ethos. Utilizing every bel canto feature (staccati, rubato, portamenti, messa di voce, etc.) with incredible precision, every scene she was in proved why Harvard Dictionary of Music’s definition of Bel canto is so incredibly off-base. “Dunque io son” was stupendous, Lowe matching Nichoals Lester’s handsome timbre and then some, while the “suitcase” aria “Contre un cor che accende amore,” nicknamed the “show-stopping cabaret” moment of the opera, was Lowe’s chance to shine in the Italian dialect and radiate she did.
The title role of the loveable Barber was valiantly sung by Nicholas Lester, whose baritonal bravado laced with self-aware sensuality, infused still with a melodramatic playfulness, is a delight to see for the first time. All throughout, his musical prowess was exceptional, his technical capabilities quite evident (especially in “Largo al factorum”), and his verismo-tested lyricism in Act two was well-worth the trip through the rain.
In the role of rather misguided but kind-hearted Doctor Bartolo, operatic veteran Andrew Shore showed that the matured voice is still capable of Rossinian joviality when properly taken care of through unflappable technical guidance. Additionally, he was also a wonderful dramaturgian, and radiated Gilbert and Sullivan vibes through his voice and theatrics. “Manca un foglio” was a great fit for him, although by the end there were several moments where energy began to fall flat and the voice strain.
The other cast members were great as well, and all had a part to play in creating the meta-based atmosphere. However two characters stood out for two different reasons.
Bartolo’s maid Berta, played by Welsh soprano Angharad Morgan, was criminally short for her. Her warm and sagacious timbre cried out to be showed-off, and “Il vecchietto cerca moglie” only further substantiated the need to hear her elegant voice handle some heavier literature.
We now come to Basilio. While there was a profundity to his timbre, his acting got monotonous and uninspiring very quickly, case in point “La calunnie è un venticello.” There were no hollers in the audience and it wasn’t hard to figure out why. He could hold notes, but other than that the agility and cleanliness was MIA.
The Final Question
The point I want to finish with is the unanswerable question of “Why not Italian?” The performance was sung in English, with Italian subtitles that did and did not work at times, and which were rather distracting given the language adaptation. I was rather shocked when the opera began and I heard what sounded like English, only to be awoken to the fact that they were pulling a MET and catering to the less opera-savvy in the audience by deliberately changing the language [think “Magic Flute” for example, one of the best known language-flipped operas known in the mainstream]. While I understand why WNO chose to perform using English, I am nevertheless strongly opposed to it on grounds of revisionism and Adornian lethargy. If you give the audience everything (having the Act two storm instruments be viewable, the “suspension of disbelief” be stripped for accessibility’s sake) and simply cater to their desires (i.e., let them eat in a performance hall!), then what’s the point of having opera in-person at all?
This performance marked my first operatic experience following COVID-19, and even though the performance was phenomenal in every aspect, the English really was quite off-putting. Not only, as I imagine being a former operatic singer myself, is English a harder language to sing floridly but the translation skews with the natural cadences and prosody of the Italianate music. However, in the singer’s defense this was not at all the case and everything was sublime. But the point still stands. Was WNO’s English performance a trend among their operatic performances? Perhaps, or maybe it’s a sign of a pernicious trend in operatic theatre where operas no longer are bound by composorial intentions, and can be played around with like toys. Regardless of my pointed beliefs, the opera has been well received by audiences which is great news all around.
The last performance of WNO’s “Barber of Seville” for the Autumn 2021 season will be on Thursday, Dec. 2nd, and I strongly recommend you attend if you are in the Bristol area. It’s a promised night of fun, laughs, and high calibre singing!