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the barber of seville revisited
Savoy Opera, London
21 May 2004

The brave failure of Raymond Gubbay to get his venture to take off commercially is sad news, and seeing the fledgling company's first production again compounds regret that the singers and musicians have been thrown out of the nest so quickly, without a little more time to mature.

Disparaging comparisons likening the standards to those of college opera are uncalled for; real opera enthusiasts have long known that some of the best evenings at the opera are to be had in colleges and in educational establishments; here (GSMD etc etc) and abroad (e.g. Zurich), as numerous of our reviews testify. We profoundly disagree with the views of Rupert Christiansen Why scrimp on culture? that "Opera is so much better when it's more expensive - - for all our egalitarian pieties, there's still a secret thrill about being admitted to something grand, foreign, expensive and sold out."

On revisiting the Savoy Barber, I was pleased that the shaky orchestral playing had improved, and last night's conductor (Brad or Gareth?) brought real verve and zip into the proceedings. Please see my review of the premiere; here below, my wife's response to her first viewing of Aletta Collins' production. (PGW)

Savoy Opera should have been congratulated on their attempt to present this old favourite to a new audience in a fresh guise, and the reception was as enthusiastic as reports of the first night indicated.

The size and intimacy of the Savoy Theatre was ideal for this well judged production. The discarding of expensive props and quaint period costumes may confound traditionalist expectations but it liberated the action to provide a new slant.

The setting is bleak urban contemporary, perhaps a council tenement - no picturesque beauty here. A wall of grey ugliness confronts us to set the scene up front at the start of the opera. The hired serenader's are drunken layabouts and threats and physical violence soon manifest. Threatening police raids seem to be part and parcel of this way of life. Hope for escape from these circumstances is needed, and provided. We, the audience, side with the lovers, and with the wily barber, Figaro, to confound aggression in its many guises.

This production is especially notable for creating a remarkable interpretation of Rosina's guardian, Dr Bartolo, as an aggressive and rather sinister old bloke who needs to be checked, not the usual loveable, bumbling old fool. Geoffrey Dolton gives a brilliant performance, both physically and vocally, of someone constantly perched on a knife edge between concealment and explosions of abusive behaviour. The hilarious over-the-top mayhem of this staging provides a perfect antidote to the bleakness of the underlying reality. Mark Wilde, resourceful in his disguises, is the new Count Almaviva and sang well once his voice had warmed up.

The failure to achieve a quick enough commercial success of the Savoy Opera experiment cannot be blamed upon this thoughtful presentation, nor upon the team of musicians and singers. Let's hope this Barber of Seville will secure another lease of life elsewhere. It would be our loss if it didn't.

Alexa Woolf

© Peter Grahame Woolf