In rehearsal: Fran Teall (Policewoman), left, Sean Clothier (Policeman), Russell Painter (Lord Robin Goodlyffe), Clive Thursfield (Dr Bartolo), Aaron Kendall ( Figaro), (Robert Edwards (Basile), Sue Hendrie (Policewoman) and seated Roxanne Korda (Rosina) and Claire Hollocks (Susanna).

The Barber of Bournville

Opera Novella

Midland Arts Cantre


Opera Novella is a delightful discovery. And you can catch them, as I did again last week, right here in the heart of Birmingham.

Novella’s clearly a company with a big heart too. It’s compact, intimate, clever, polished, and very conscious of how to give its audience quality without pomp. It has a lovely sense of humour. Its small orchestra is tip-top. The quality of the singing – mostly young performers – is really impressive.

They’ve paid a tribute to Donizetti, staging (in English) Don Pasquale and now comes along Rossini, Donizetti’s almost exact contemporary (and rival in audience affection). Birmingham’s MAC multi-arts centre supplied an appropriate acting space.

Opera Novella is founded and run by a husband and wife, Janet and Russ Phillips. He looks after the finances, she as Artistic Director is the inspiration for almost every aspect of productions: she chooses the singers (some she knows already, sometimes from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, some are newly spotted); she writes (here) the witty spoken chat which mercifully and perfectly adequately replaces the recitatives (actually this is done quite often elsewhere, no offence to the composer, except that these wondrously skilled young performers would have whipped through recits pretty nippily, overseen by this Barber’s unceasingly excellent Music Director, Phil Ypres Smith).

And, having supplied the farrago with witty local Brummie allusions, Janet directs, initially in patently well-planned rehearsal, with the supreme great skill learned from her own previous professional opera days. Aaron Kendall’s Figaro - what a find! – with his brilliant fidgety movements and gestures and stances helped the show whizz (as did the others) – more of both below.

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Roxanne Korda  (Rosina), Aaron Kendall  (Figaro) and Russell Painter (Sir Robin Goodlyffe) Picture: Mark Phillips

Her devising of some deliciously dotty ensemble twistings and weavings, clearly very carefully rehearsed, were inspired and so good that they almost effortlessly added to the glorious sense of fun that pervaded these three Birmingham performances.

I thought I was going to criticise the lack of surtitles, ie the text displayed on screens (as, for example, WNO does at the Hippodrome). Paradoxically, opera in English is actually very often the hardest to catch. But no such problem. So articulate – and close to us – were the singers that the need just wasn’t there. Indeed they all, both in speaking and in singing, unvaryingly excelled. You didn’t need an ear trumpet to get the point.

And so to the point. Russell Painter’s amorous Almaviva (converted into ‘Lord Robin Goodlyffe’ - living the Good Life?), is frighteningly static, stand-and-deliver at the start but already moving and emitting a most gorgeous sound, equally importantly full of insight into the music and manoeuvring to effect every note, was wonderful even before he began the hilarious antics and impishness and witty attempts at wooing and impersonations which lent such scamperings and in-yer-face wit to the whole show from then on.

And that voice – what a treat. An opera singer needs good training but above all, vocal support, that underlay that comes from the diaphragm though not only that, and Painter in his youth already had that in droves. First disguise donning: ‘ I’ve disguised myself as Lindor (as in Rossini’s original – no fancy new names here). His top notes were one of many impressive details of this fine performance.

The merest mention of Figaro leads to bass/baritone Aaron Kendall. What a performer. Vocally brilliant, deft, pliable, enticing, varied, excellent (including in coloratura (it mostly comes in short fragments for him, Rosina etc.). He masters arias like a seasoned, top-ranking Italian (or German). His acting – hyperactive, but always on target - is one long giggle. He plies his limbs – hands, arms, head, neck, bandy legs, twizzling knees, every part elastic like an energetic simian – what a treat he is at every turn. And you can’t get rid of him. He may impudently pop up in anyone else’s scene – just as others do, in Janet Phillips’ wickedly creative staging.   

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Claire Hollocks  (Susanna) Picture: Dr Maureen Korda

Kendall fits perfectly into ensembles too. In fact the way all the voices blended in the culminating sextets (soon woven turned into septets with Basilio or Susan added, as if attempting to equal Mozart’s Figaro and others of the earlier Classical era).

Both of whom need a mention. Claire Hollocks’ Susanna was such a treat, her acting yet also singing, one cursed Rossini for not given her more opportunities. Even with these short contributions she managed to bring delicious impishness as well as finesse. But an even bigger hit for me was newcomer Robert Edwards as Basilio (or Basille). He began to look like a comic master, with a wonderful, sensitive voice not just bass (as specified), but across the baritone range too. A real find, not just for Novella, but for any other company too.

Clive Thursfield is the highly experienced member of this cast. His talent shone out, especially when faced with (usually combatting) other members of the cast. Bartolo – a much bigger part than in Mozart’s Figaro has to be a bit of a twit as well as constantly outwitted. Thursfield did being outwitted to a ‘T’, and the crucial thing – that he is outrageous in planning to marry his beautiful young ward - he put across as nattily as ever. Was his voice just a bit subdued (just at the outset). Maybe not. For he was a laughable, disaster-prone presence in every way.         

Is that everybody? Of course no, for Roxanna Korda’s Rosina was simply fabulous. Perhaps it’s in the genes, for I was tipped off that she is the great-niece of Alexander Korda, the film producer and director who is an absolute hero of mine. But now she is, too. In every tessitura: she can invade the mezzo-soprano range with ease, but her mastery of the upper range – and she revealed (where appropriate) quite a big, well-developed voice - was astonishing.

A beautiful sound, not just when hitting the highest notes (and Rossini allocates his Rosina a good many of those), but often in near-coloratura rising to them, or indeed descending from them. She proved it was truly sophisticated opera singing. She shows a maturity beyond her years, and like Kendall, any opera festival should snap her up like a shot. Perhaps they already have.

But back to ‘Lord Robin’. Russell Painter revealed such gifts in dressing up (costumes – moderately good, uncredited) and indeed adopting crazy spoken banter – aping the best of stage actors – that as the libretto evolved he emerged as side-splitting. Of the voice there was no doubt at all.

This was something special, a tenor (again, with range) who seemed to have the variety for every point in this fangled plot. Yes, above all vocally he rose to the summit of young performers – or arguably without the ‘young’, which sounds like a reservation. He too, like those others, would grace Garsington, or Michael Chance’s The Grange, or Longborough.

Certainly Bampton, which is also the brainchild of an inspired husband and wife team. He should audition for any of them. Like those two Ks, Kendall and Korda, they would be jolly lucky to get him. 

Equally any of the (ingeniously) engineered chamber orchestra. Phil Smith’s creation of a reduced score – quintet (actually that night a sextet, utterly wonderful. Smith himself produced oodles of variety from his flexible keyboard, sometimes conducting with left hand at the same time. In that case, Dot Brodie’s wonderful bassoon and Dan Bradley’s cello providing an utterly secure foundation.

When  Elizabeth Tomey had solo violin touches allocated her, I was enchanted beyond measure. But the icing on the cake for me was that BOTH clarinets, not just one, turned up. The thrill of hearing them cheekily and naughtily pairing or paralleling produced one of the most fabulous sounds I have heard. It all worked a bomb. 

Have I been fair to everyone, and given them adequate space? I hope so, for Novella is a company I am thrilled to have encountered. And anyone (else) should be thrilled to encounter them in the future too.

Roderic Dunnett


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