barber cast

The Barber of Seville

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


Rossini, born in Pesaro on the Adriatic, and from a musical family, was already contemplating the stage as early as 1806, when he was just 14. But by his first clutch of completed operas he was aged 18 and 19, and the talent was already shining through. His successes – for almost all were successes – continued right through till his last, William Tell, in 1827.

Comic opera, such as – indeed especially – The Barber of Seville, based on the same original play by Beaumarchais that gave birth to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, is of course what he is best known for. But in fact serious subjects, based on a wide variety of historical sources, assumed an equal importance in his output. And they, like his comedies, were also almost all sensational hits.     

There were other comedies composed at nearly exactly the same time (1816) which almost rivalled the Barber in popularity: just a year later, both La Cenerentola (Cinderella) and La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie) ran it close, Rossini can be acclaimed for moving opera on from the late classical period, but in fact his kind of highly decorated arias was around in the last years of the 18th  century – Salieri, for instance, was sometimes mocked or pastiched for placing such emphasis on the florid; and Paisiello, as another example, ran the same course, albeit perhaps not so much.

What is extraordinary first of all about this Welsh National Opera staging is that it is – ostensibly, or in one sense - so old. WNO first presented it, one understands, to whatever extent, in 1986, that is, 35 years ago. The company has not revived it, in various guises, too often, so there is not unleashed an undue kind of tiredness, or mustiness (even former Artistic Director David Pountney’s 1982 production of Janacek’s From The House of the Dead is still doing the rounds).. And to the present director, Giles Havergal, must be owed the extraordinary freshness of this present autumn run. It was fun, impudent, incredibly alive, and showed not the slightest whisper of being a hoary old revival (as some long running, much restaged productions on the continent and even at Covent Garden have turned out). Even Franco Zeffirelli’s once vivid stagings ultimately looked a bit stale.

Not so here. The voice to die for was Nico Darmanin, Maltese born then trained in London, He was a finalist in the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, which may be one place where WNO spotted him.


Nico Darmanin  as Count Almaviva. Pictures:Richard Hubert Smith.

This was a tenor of ravishing beauty, his high register (as Almaviva/Lindoro must have) utterly secure, his intonation gorgeous, and the sparkle of his acting – concealing, overhearing, dressing up – put together with the voice, verging on the miraculous. At every point a marvel to hear, and a joy to watch.

Vocally too – and there was loads of excellence in this cast – one might, perhaps surprisingly, pick out the lesser role of Berta, Rosina’s maid and, so it looked, chaperone, Sung by Angharad Morgan, a local lass (from Loughor, Swansea), with much of her experience acquired in Wales, despite her somewhat hyperactive acting, she shone audibly, not least when drawn in to the two great sextets in Act I.

Did she outshine Heather Lowe’s Rosina (the future Countess Almaviva in Figaro)? Nearly. Lowe has a pretty forceful voice and powerful projection – but then she must have both for the sometimes fearsome antics Rossini puts her through. To be honest, one thinks of Rosina as a young girl. However immensely competent, vigorous – and excitable – and with comic gifts as well, this was one of the several highly capable leads who fuelled the evening’s performance.

WNO persists in the misconception that opera in English has no need of surtitles. In fact English is one of the hardest of all languages to enunciate and get across to an audience. There is an ongoing debate about whether you deploy English surtitles for opera in the vernacular. Some are determinedly against it. I think otherwise. 

Other performers to mention, but first, one of three things that gave the production its especially marvellous impact. High on the list, the set, visually a treat: it was seemingly intended to be 19th century, with fabulous lavish tapestries, eye-grabbing texturings and a quite fabulous overall feel; but you felt the era – to advantage – looked more like the time of Hogarth, The Rake’s Progress. The clothing, which somehow brought out the fun, a kind of pastiche in itself, could have been Dr. Johnson’s time, or Handel’s. For every role it was almost thrilling.


keel watson

Keel Watson as Basilio with Andrew Shore as Dr Bartolo

Put that together with the costumes (all of this designed by Russell Craig) and this whole staging was a continual feast for the eyes. Even the extras, rather cleverly dotted around the sides, goggling at the action, constantly changing and closing in the side space, were wondrously dressed, all carefully matched to the period Almaviva’s scarlet outfit when he appears posing as a military beau was classic amid a flood of rich, enticing conceptions. And they managed to find a worthy attire even for Rossini’s Don Basilio – Keel Watson here as splendid, not least in deepest register, as he is as the Bonze (furious uncle) in WNO’S Madam Butterfly. Always a striking presence. Always gratifying.

If set and costumes were quite sensational, the supreme character here, no surprise, was Andrew Shore’s Dr. Bartolo, the aged and hopeless guardian who intends to acquire Rosina as his wife, and her considerable assets as well. Shore must have done this, and other roles, umpteen times, because he is such an obvious first choice. He is dotty, bizarre, clumsy, dozy, dupable, and every move, every gesture made this abundantly clear. Not just all that, but the range of voices he came up with amid spluttering, puzzling or preening was a marvel in itself. What an adroit, brilliant performer. Not surprising that he carries off weird role in Gilbert and Sullivan, and Don Pasquale or even Falstaff, so magnificently.

The WNO orchestra, needless to say, was superb, although Rossini makes use of appealing obligati to a surprisingly small extent (trumpet was one very nice example).


Nicholas Lester as Figaro and Heather Lowe as Rosina

WNO a few years ago acquired the stunningly gifted Czech (Moravian) conductor Tomas Hanus as its Music Director. However here this was all pieced together by his deputy and repetiteur Frederick Brown, who coaxed from his players all the panache, zest yet also sensitivity one could ask for, .

Nicholas Lester’s Figaro had ample wit and some nattily engineered moves; one hoot being when he supports the Count clad as a remarkably funnily dressed lady: constantly active; mastering the coloratura virtually effortlessly, as Darmanin’s Almaviva and Lowe’s Rosina both do. Might he have been given more to do? Rossini’s Figaro, however, apart from those big punchy arias, is not Mozart’s

But one thing in which Lester excelled was in the patter of recitative: neat, snappy, amusing. He displayed, if not quite everything one might hope for from the mischievous barber, at least a lot of it. His shaving of Bartolo to distract the dodderer’s attention was great fun. And when frequently paired with Almaviva as a scheming duo, like Don Giovanni and Leporello, there were many joyous moments to add the cream to a delightful, presentable evening.

Roderic Dunnett


Index page Hippodrome Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre