Rossini at Wexford

We had long hoped that occasions such as Saturday’s premiere of Wide Open Opera’s The Barber of Seville, rapturously received by a capacity audience, would grace the National Opera House on occasions outside the Wexford Festival Opera season.

This production is a personal triumph for conductor Fergus Sheil, because it set out to offer a new and fresh perspective on one of the most popular operas ever written, an impossible task, one would have thought.

Though formed in 2012, Saturday was Wide Open Opera’s debut at the National Opera House, but not for Sheil, whom we have seen work his wonder on many occasions.

As Artistic Director of Wide Open Opera, in his dreams he must have anticipated with relish the wide open spaces offered by the theatre to his creative team of Michael Barker-Craven, Jamie Vartan and Sinead Wallace.

The Barber of Seville is of course a carousel, a 90 mph romp from the pen of a master who could churn out half a dozen operas in two years.

When you think of early Rossini you think breathless pace, convoluted plots, a mish mash of scenes, a tendency to tantalise his impatient and often rowdy audiences with a blend of operas buffa and seria.

The Barber of Seville, an opera in two acts, is famously gifted with a crazy mid-opera finale plotted, which I use loosely, to be resolved, breathlessly, after the interval.

So for a new look to succeed the stage has to be worked to achieve the frenetic conclusion to Act One when, intentionally, both audience and cast are in agreement that nobody has much idea of what is going on: the composer’s infectious music is one reason why the overture was the sound track of Bugs Bunny cartoons in the 1950s.

The stage is kept busy, perhaps too much, because a revolving building should always be an addition to the plot, not a distraction, but The Barber of Seville is primarily a feast for the ears, stuffed with coloratura arias and ensembles.

Rossini is generous in his offerings to the menage a trois: Figaro’s Largo al factotum; Almaviva’s gorgeous serenade to Rosina, Ecco ridente in cielo and Rosina’s Una voce poca fa.

Thus, a conductor requires singers of vocal dexterity and, essentially, vocal agility, because Rossini does not take prisoners: Largo al factotum, because it is sung so early, needs to hit the mark, and Gavin Ring does.

Circumnavigating the irrepressible Figaro are Tara Erraught’s Rosina (her 25th time in the role but in her first complete opera performance in Ireland), Tyler Nelson as Almaviva and, in a world of his own, the craftily written, Bartolo, worn as if bespoken by Graeme Danby.

Rossini’s operas can fundamentally resemble a stew, a little bit of everything at his disposal thrown in, the magic of which is uncorked in the memorable overtures, and in place of profundity he offers frivolity,  a huge challenge to the conductor and director to bring cohesion to the ensemble, from the stage to the pit, for Rossini makes more use of the orchestra than was customary of Italian operas of the time.

With his team of comic actors and well drilled supporting cast in place, Fergus Sheil is always prepared to let his musicians off the leash, but only insofar as they are in tandem with the spontaneous engagement of the high jinks on stage, but his discipline is there when the expressive tenderness of an aria demands it. Sheil is at the peak of his form.

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