The Barber of Seville - English Touring Opera - Hackney Empire, 8 March 2012
Daringly, there are no surtitles; fortunately, the ETO cast sing far more clearly than their ENO counterparts. That's no mean compliment when you consider the yards of fioriture involved. The experiment makes a powerful case for doing without. Comic timing is preserved. Attentiveness is obligatory - proper listening in other words. The translation sneaks in a few explanatory phrases where the original text doesn't quite follow the action, so it's ideal for newcomers (of which there were plenty in the Hackney audience).
Thomas Guthrie's staging too is a model of clarity. A few lofty panels form a narrow street and then the forbidding interior of Rosina's domestic prison. The few (not enough?) stylised touches like the line-dancing townsfolk and Figaro's bearded 'lady' customers work brilliantly, but the style is mostly naturalistic.
This was the first night of a long national tour. Despite some cuts, the pace did slacken here and there, but it's the sort of thing that should improve as the run progresses. It's well thought-out, uncontroversial, and has plenty of entertaining stage 'business' to pad out the more repetitive sections of music.
The cast was well balanced, anchored by the superb comic timing of Andrew Slater as Bartolo and Alan Fairs as Basilio. Kitty Whately's beautiful bell-like high mezzo turned a little fibrous at the top, but she made an appealing Rosina. Nicholas Sharratt's abbreviated Cessa di più resistere was the brave but successful climax of an assured performance. Grant Doyle sang elegantly but maybe a little too much so - his Figaro was rather restrained for a comic character.
There were times when I thought Paul McGrath could have pushed the pace more, but after a shaky start the orchestra gave a lively performance.
For all its apparent simplicity (or perhaps because of it), this is a difficult opera to do well. ETO's version may not be perfect, but it's far more engaging than the starry but stodgy Bartlett Sher version I saw at the Met, and it should only get better as the tour progresses.