The Barber of Seville review – creaky WNO production heralds welcome return

By Rian Evans
Keel Watson (Basilio) and Andrew Shore (Dr Bartolo) in the WNO’s Barber of Seville.
Retrograde progress … Keel Watson (Basilio) and Andrew Shore (Dr Bartolo) in the WNO’s Barber of Seville. Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith

Welsh National Opera have been so noticeably absent from their main stages for a long 18 months – July’s small-scale Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was a National Trust country garden affair – their return to live performance is, of course, to be welcomed. That much was made plain by this enthusiastic, if less-than-capacity, first night audience. Yet as the company launches its 75th anniversary season, putting on a production that’s 35 years old and audibly creaking – jettisoning a newer, less successful, Barber – seemed like retrograde progress, hardly a defiantly dynamic, let alone triumphant, return to business.

Giles Havergal, the original director, returned to oversee this revival, its basic conceit being a travelling company setting up to sing in a piazza. The tight squeeze of a set with its countless potential trip-up factors has always made this slightly nerve-racking to watch: here, though, the main obstacle was Robert David Macdonald’s English translation, clunky and full of tongue-twisters, too often a scramble of words, and too few laughs gained to justify the choice.

A pert and graceful presence... Heather Lowe as Rosina in WNO's Barber of Seville
A pert and graceful presence... Heather Lowe as Rosina Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith

For such a seasoned performer as Andrew Shore, this was no problem: his crusty Dr Bartolo, on whom the comedy hinges, was strong on caricature. As Bartolo’s ward Rosina, Heather Lowe boasted the best possible diction, her clearly focused mezzo soprano well projected. It was Lowe’s pert and graceful presence that dominated the ensembles rather than Nico Darmanin’s Count Almaviva or Nicholas Lester’s Figaro, the latter’s recitative patter lacking the panache Rossini’s factotum really needs. Keel Watson’s Don Basilio maximised his role in the farcical moments.

The wind section of the WNO Orchestra delivered their solo lines with flair but, perhaps due to the necessary distancing in the pit, the string sound got rather swallowed and, while conductor Tomáš Hanus was happy to be back at the helm, overall, there was simply not enough of the stylish Italianate precision that has characterised this production in the past.

• At the Millennium Centre, Cardiff on 29 and 30 of September and touring until 2 December.

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