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The Barber of Seville

Gioacchino Rossini
Savoy Opera,
Savoy Theatre
(2004)

It's a feature of London's opulent Savoy Theatre that while packed houses delight in fine, and often very funny opera, at least one elderly gentleman should sit fidgeting anxiously in the dress circle.

Back in the late 19th century, if storytellers are right, the gentleman was Wm Schwenk Gilbert. This week, he was there again in the person of Raymond Gubbay, a seat away from this writer, awaiting it seemed to me, the verdict of every single member of a colourful audience gathered to witness the birth of his and Britain's newest opera company.

Rossin's The Barber of Seville was hardly an inappropriate choice for the revival of popular opera at the former the home of Gilbert & Sullivan, the most successful partnership in the business the nation has so far produced.

If Thursday's press night may be taken as an indication of things to come from Savoy Opera, then audiences will be relaxed, casually dressed and ready to admit they know little or nothing about what is happening on stage. For their part, those on stage will be young singers and other musicians with a freshness of approach to blow away all the stuffiness, which so easily clogs the pores of operatic enjoyment.

Even with such a fair wind, of course, Savoy opera will not have an untroubled passage. Steven Pimlott's production of The Barber, for instance, for all its mischievous charm is not quite up to the music.

Thankfully, most of the young singers are. Sally Wilson's Rosina, despite an occasional note of tragedy in the voice, soars richly whenever the score allows her. Darren Abrams, without great physical presence is a lyrical Almaviva.

The real figure of the opera, however, is Owen Gilhooly's sturdy Figaro. It is a tribute to his stoicism that he can perform the strange tasks the director requires of him without batting an operatic eyelid.

Much enterprise is found among other singers, notably Geoffrey Dolton (Bartolo) and Charbel Mattar (Don Basillio) with a lovely cameo maid of all work Berta from Phyllis Cannan who one expects to be shining even more brightly in later productions.

Gideon Davy's settings suffer from the affliction that assails so many modernisers - they are rather dull and don't always work properly. Come to that, do top designers know what "ordinary", in terms of present day, is really like?

No such problems with the 20-strong Royal Philharmonic Opera Orchestra. While, some of us might have appreciated a touch more 'accelerando' from conductor Brad Cohen, it was nevertheless a delight to hear how Rossini sounded before HMV and the great orchestras of the 20th century got to him.

On this showing, opera is alive and well and living at the Savoy - and Raymond Gubbay can relax and enjoy the performance.

"The Barber of Seville" runs in repertoire with Mozart's version of Beaumarchais' "The Marriage of Figaro" until June, after which Savoy Opera's new productions of Bizet's "Carmen" and Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore" will be staged from 3 & 5th July. Autumn productions will include "La Traviata", "La Belle Helèn", and "The Magic Flute".

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole