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Rossini Barber of Seville
Mozart The Marriage of Figaro
Savoy Opera, Savoy Theatre, London 15/16 April 2004

A new era for opera in London?

First, this was a hugely amusing Barber, greeted with gales of laughter at the very funny gags.

Second, it was by no means a conventional realisation of one of the most popular standard operas, as we had been led to expect.

Third, preparation was immaculate, with split second timing between conductor and singers, maintained in the fastest patter-songs.

This first production in Raymond Gubbay's bid to challenge elitist, expensive opera in London, made for an auspicious start to his first unsubsidised season at the Savoy Theatre. The Savoy is intimate in comparison with the vastness of the Coliseum and the Royal Opera House, so all the stage business tells without the need for exaggerated gesturing. The acoustic is dry, listening in Row E of the Dress Circle, which militated against atmosphere in the overture (strings thin and unreliable) but helped for clarity of the words which came across well (amusing updated translation by David Parry; Gubbay's policy is opera in English, and there were no surtitles).

A word of praise for the casting director. There is a wealth of young talent around and all the experienced lead singers lived up to their impressive CVs. A nice touch in the programme is that photos and CVs of the chorus members are printed too; there should be no difficulty finding 'covers' during the season! Several principals were cast against familiar stereotypes; Dr Bartolo (Geoffrey Dolton) and his ward (Sally Wilson - last seen in the Beaumarchais sequel Family Matters at the Bridewell) were slender figures, despite all the domestic activity of Berta, the slovenly chain-smoking housekeeper, whose part was expanded with opportunities to burn food (and cook a cat!) in the oven, and to scorch the ironing, which Phyllis Cannon forgot about whilst giving her aria.

The men made a strong team, Owen Gilhooly a masterful Figaro, driving the action with a commanding presence and ringing tones, Geoffrey Dolton driven to hilarious despair as the butt of all the fun, soothing himself with his cat, Darren Abrahams a resourceful Almaviva, amusing in his disguises and confident in negotiating Rossini's roulades. Sally Wilson started a little uncertainly but gained through the evening to give a satisfying depiction of Rosina, her fruity chest voice notably characterful.

The conductor (Brad Cohen or Gareth Hancock, we weren't told which?) didn't get much lustre from the reduced Royal Philharmonic Opera Orchestra - winds better than strings - but all went well once the curtain was up and eyes took part of our attention away from ears; the singers were accompanied considerately and the fastest tempi were negotiated safely.

There must be controversy about the sets and production. Gideon Davey's sets had no discernible logic, and could exist only in the fanciful world of opera. Things went on in what might have been a block of flats, with a peculiar walk-way across the stage and above the rooms. We looked into and out of windows on two floors, and most activities seemed to take place in the vast Bartolo kitchen.

Aletta Collins directed with real flair, albeit a questionable overall concept, bringing her own crazy logic into the action moment by moment, with movement and groupings drawing on her skills as a choreographer (most recently, for The Tempest at Covent Garden). The visual gags a-plenty carried many surprises; before Figaro took charge of the proceedings, vicious cruelty in the first scene with Count and Fiorello beaten up for more money by the the backing chorus of serenaders; the music lesson accompanied by an electronic keyboard which had the song pre-programmed in; and many more incidental delights, such as a round of snacks for the chorus of gun-toting policemen to diffuse a threatening situation!

The Marriage of Figaro was premiered next night at the Savoy, and will run in tandem with the more controversial The Barber of Seville until 19 June. We were told there will not be a 'house style' and that the directors will all be 'doing our own thing'.

This Figaro was fairly traditional, dressed in 18 C costume and with economical sets, throwing all attention upon the music and the ensemble acting, which was exemplary.

Again, high class singing and acting from a mainly young cast. The ensembles (finale of 2nd Act, the "Your mother - Your father" sextet in the third act) were of a calibre once thought impossible outside Glyndebourne.

Principals Darren Jeffery, Tamsin Coombs, Damian Thantrey, Andrea Creighton, Doreen Curran gave particular pleasure, as did the veteran Richard van Allan as a splendidly convincing father for Figaro. Matthew Richardson directed with a light touch. This was a performance which brought Mozart to the forefront of our attention, and Jeremy Sams' translation came across clearly without compromising the musical lines.

Damian Thantrey (Count) & Andrea Creighton (Susanna)

The sound was far better in mid-stalls than above in the dress circle for the Barber, and the orchestra sounded more comfortable under conductor Paul McGrath - again there are alternates at the rostrum, with its electronic keyboard for the recitatives; an orchestral player managed, not without difficulty, to remember who it was last night. The overture fizzed, accompanied by a long running mobile phone; perhaps the Savoy would do well to let the audience know who is conducting when giving the still necessary reminder to switch off!

Savoy Opera joins Opera Holland Park as affordable and welcome alternatives to the main opera houses in London. Both these opening productions are worth catching by seasoned operagoers alongside the new audiences Raymond Gubbay hopes to attract.

See also Leader in The Times today "Now that's what we call opera".
For a hostile reaction to The Barber of Seville see Tim Ashley in The Guardian.

Photos credit Ivan Kyncl

© Peter Grahame Woolf