A Physical Barber by ETO

For a
start, it is rather long with copious quantities of plot and of recitative.
Essentially it’s a fast paced farce, but one which is populated by
believable, human characters thanks to Rossini’s music. But then, Rossini
goes and throws in those long, stylised ensembles which sound fabulous but
present the director with the problem of what to do. Some solve this by making
the farce veer into slapstick, and other productions just aren’t funny
(on Radio 3 recently the director of the Met, Peter Gelb, talked about one of
their patrons not realising that The Barber of Seville was a

Barber_ETO_04.gifAndrew Slater as Bartolo and Alan Fairs as Basilio

For ETO’s new production, which opened at the Hackney Empire on March
8th (we saw it on March 10th), director Thomas Guthrie opted for a very
physical approach, but one that was strongly character based. The cast were all
highly choreographed (the ensemble in the first scene actually break out into
choreographed dance), but we never descended into slapstick, laughs always came
because of the interaction on the stage not simply because a character was
doing a funny walk. He kept the piece moving at a very fast pace and the
talented, young cast responded by delivering recitative that was dramatically
convincing and quick moving. The work was sung in English, in David
Parry’s musical translation. The result was, as it should be, highly
entertaining, you never felt that you were sitting through the recit simply
waiting for the next aria, as can happen.

Barber_ETO_03.gifNicholas Sharratt as Almaviva

Rhys Jarman’s traditionally inspired designs consisted of a series of
painted flats representing panelling; with judicious additions in each scene,
these created a flexible series of playing spaces, both interior and exterior.
All overlooked by a striking backdrop of a city-scape with a lowering sky.
Colours were in a carefully chosen tonal palate, modern but classical; with
Gillray style cartoons in modern colours as the pictures in Bartolo’s
house. Costumes were traditional too, but the piece didn’t feel embedded
in aspic.

The title role was played by Grant Doyle, who studied both in his native
Australia and at the RCM. He was on the ROH Young Artists programme in 2001-3
and plans include the title role in Don Giovanni at Garsington. Doyle
has a strong stage presence and effortlessly dominated, as Figaro should,
without ever mugging. (Incidentally he played the guitar himself during the Act
1 serenade). His Figaro was rather a smug character, almost annoyingly so, but
a charmer too. His account of ‘Largo al factotum’ was marred very
slightly by balance problems, which reoccurred at other times during the
performance; from our seat in the Dress Circle the orchestra sometimes was a
little too strong for the singers, probably more to do with the acoustic of
Frank Matcham’s theatre (which was built as a music hall) than anything

Kitty Whately won the Kathleen Ferrier Award in 2011 and currently studies
at the RCM International Opera School. We saw her as Teodata in Flavio
at ETO last year and were looking forward to her singing Rosina and we were not
disappointed. Whately has a poised stage presence and gave the impression that
Rosina was looking on the world, for the most part, in amused tolerance. A
strong minded person, but lively and certainly attractive; she was touching in
the closing scenes when Rosina thinks that she has been betrayed by Figaro and

Barber_ETO_02.gifGrant Doyle as Figaro

I have to confess that when it comes to the singing of passage-work both in
baroque opera and early 19th century Italian opera, I am a bit of an obsessive;
in an ideal world everything should be sung beautifully and cleanly. This
Whately did, of the 3 main leads (Rosina, Figaro, Almaviva) all sang their
passage-work confidently, expressively and creditably. But there were times
when I felt that both Nicholas Sharratt (singing Almaviva) and Doyle were
smudging things, but Whately’s divisions always seemed to come out

She was partnered by the highly personable Nicholas Sharratt who has sung
Nemorino at Grange Park Opera and Brighella (Ariadne auf Naxos) at
Garsington. He has an attractive, quite slim-line lyric tenor voice with an
easy top so that as Count Almaviva the tessitura of the role did not seem to
hold terrors for him. As I have said, there were times when I felt he smudged
his passage-work, but I warmed to his performance. His open stage presence and
the way he developed a good rapport with Whately were endearing; plus he had
good comic timing, he was funny without ever over doing things when playing the
drunken soldier. He topped this by giving a fine account of the Count’s
final aria, the showpiece which is usually cut and which Rossini re-used for
La Cenerentola. After a long evening, Sharratt’s performance was
quite brilliant and made a good dramatic case for including the aria.

Barber_ETO_05.gifL-R: Grant Doyle as Figaro, Kitty Whately as Rosina, Nicholas Sharratt as Almaviva, Cheryl Enever as Berta, Andrew Slater as Bartolo and Alan Fairs as Basilio

Andrew Slater has been an ETO regular for a few years now. He played Doctor
Bartolo as an obsessively jealous dyspeptic, rather than being plain nasty. He
coped manfully with having to do some amazingly botched comic surgery on
patients during his Act 1 aria; one of the few moments when Guthrie’s
ideas got the better of him. As with all good comedy, you felt sorry for
Bartolo even though he behaved badly.

Alan Fairs was a hilariously scary Don Basilio and gave a strong, highly
characterised account of the calumny arias. Cheryl Enever was a lively Berta,
unfortunately deprived of her aria.

Conductor Paul McGrath kept things going at quite a lick, which was great
for the comedy but which meant that co-ordination between pit and stage was not
always quite what it should have been; this was particularly true in the big
comic ensembles when Guthrie has his cast moving around. But it was an
understandable error, given the desire to keep everything zipping along.

This was a performance full of energy and vivid character. Guthrie’s
very physical approach to theatre was enthusiastically taken up by the cast.
Despite the occasional problems, this was a performance that was funny and
enjoyable in all the right ways.

ETO is performing the opera on tour in the UK until May 26th, along with
Eugene Onegin and three children’s operas.

Robert Hugill

image_description=Kitty Whately as Rosina [Photo by Richard Hubert Smith courtesy of English Touring Opera]
product_title=Gioacchino Rossini: The Barber of Seville
product_by=Count Almaviva: Nicholas Sharratt; Figaro: Grant Doyle; Rosina: Kitty Whately; Doctor Bartolo: Andrew Slater; Berta: Cheryl Enever; Don Basilio: Alan Fairs; Ambrogio: Andrew Glover; An Officer: Brendan Collins; A Notary: Maciek O’Shea. Conductor: Paul McGrath. Director: Thomas Guthrie. Designer: Rhys Jarman. Lighting: Guy Hoare. Translation: David Parry.
product_id=Above: Kitty Whately as Rosina

Photos by Richard Hubert Smith courtesy of English Touring Opera