What opera lovers have been waiting for

It’s been a long time between drinks, but finally an Opera Australia show to rave about. This strong, entertaining production of The Barber of Seville is complimented by the most even casting to been seen on the Melbourne opera stage for some time plus the star appeal of OA baritone Jose Carbo.

The Barber of Seville
The Barber of Seville

This production by Elijah Moshinsky was first presented in Sydney in 1995 and, as with Graeme Murphy’s Turandot (which opened the Melbourne season), proudly stands the test of time. Produced just before the fad for multi-media infected the opera stage, the director relies on good old-fashioned theatrical devices to create magic. An irreverent tone is set early with a miniature backdrop populated by automated puppets, and an hilarious choreographed wind storm during the entr’acte reminds us of the joy of silent movies, appropriate here as the action has been transplanted to the 1920s. The time travel enables the injection of keystone cops like chorus buffoonery, and a glorious double level doll-house set with deco-inspired wallpaper.

Unfortunately I was seated too close to the stage to appreciate concurrent action across the wide cut-away set. What to me was distracting business in Bartolo’s surgery stage left during an aria stage right was reported to me by a patron seated in the gallery as achieving a filmic quality entirely in keeping with the 20s era.

The story, adapted from Beaumarchais’s play of the same name, and the prequel to the Marriage of Figaro, is fairly typical of its time. The young and beautiful Rosina, ward of the much older Dr Bartolo, is of a marriageable age and has attracted the attentions of the young Count Almaviva. Almaviva follows her and Bartolo to Seville where, disguised as the impoverished Lindoro, he enlists the help of the barber Figaro to woo Rosina. Time is of the essence as Bartolo intends marrying Rosina himself, and is in the process of making arrangements for such with the assistance of the music master Don Basilio.

It all seems innocent enough, and with a laugh a minute and tuneful music The Barber of Seville succeeds as a happy farce. This production however manages to bring out some of the darker, and contemporary, aspects of the story: the bullying control of Rosina by the lecherous Bartolo – she is essentially a prisoner in his home – is brought home in a way that made me feel distinctly uncomfortable, and the complicit corruption of the Catholic church personified by Don Basilio and the notary is pointedly obvious. It is clear why Beaumarchais’s plays were considered in their time to be so dangerous to the status quo.

For this run, Opera Australia brings us a cast of fine singer-actors, with a nice balance of the young and the more seasoned. Representing the young Sian Pendry (Rosina) and John Longmuir (Count Almaviva) have attractive exuberance and more than enough good notes to excuse the occasional unfocussed coloratura; and Conal Coad (Don Basilio), Teresa La Rocca (Berta) and Andrew Moran (Bartolo) bring assurance to their singing and comic acting.

But, just as most people associate this opera with the famous aria “Largo al Factotum” with its strains of “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro” (immortalised by Bugs Bunny), this production is defined by the presence of rising star Jose Carbo as the Barber of the title.

Carbo has it all. Latin matinee-idol looks, charismatic physicality, confident comic timing, and most importantly, a very attractive note-perfect baritone voice that is ideally suited to this repertoire. As I sat generally appreciating the rest of this cast, I was always longing for Carbo to arrive on stage: then I could just relax and enjoy.

This is what opera lovers spend their lives waiting for – the thrill of world class singing on a stage near you!

Reportedly Carbo is looking to further shores to advance his career, so audiences are advised to catch this fine artist before he is lost to us. The Barber of Seville, starring Jose Carbo, continues at the Arts Centre till May 17.

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