Posts Tagged ‘ Rossini ’

Barber of Seville (or Salisbury), review

The Little Opera House at The King’s Head Theatre
Dir: Robin Norton-Hale

Drinks allowed in the auditorium, an unsightly squabble over seats and your standard upright piano in the corner. This is certainly not Covent Garden.

The Barber of Seville Kings Head TheatreFor the opening of London’s newest (and smallest) opera house, director Robin Norton-Hale brings us this cheeky new translation of Rossini’s classic comic opera. The Barber of Seville becomes the Barber of Salisbury and Rossini’s lothario, Count Almaviva, becomes the Marquis of Bath. Having caught a glimpse of the beautiful Rosina, the Marquis is determined to seduce her. He enlists the help of Figaro, the barber, to win her hand and defeat his rival, Rosina’s guardian Dr Bartley (originally Bartolo).

OperaUpClose lives up to its name: singers wander through the audience, advising on hair care, sharing a joke. Figaro, sung by Richard Immergluck, throws himself into the part of compere: this level of audience interaction is a world away from the big opera houses. Belinda Evans as Rosina is the best kind of Jane Austen heroine: “accomplished” but with an undeniable glint in her eye: ‘this little lamb is not so pure’ she sings in her rich soprano. Gareth Dafydd Morris as the serial seducer, the Marquis, has impressive stage presence, though his voice sometimes feels a bit much for this small space.

This production really comes into its own, however, during the ensemble scenes: Norton-Hale’s staging is excellently judged with a priceless sense for the ridiculous. The opera’s finale is tightly directed and fizzes with a tangible energy. Dickon Gough makes Bartley a wonderfully absurd, pompous lecher, complete with slicked back hair and nervous twitches. Overall, this is uproariously funny, thanks partly to Norton-Hale’s irreverent new libretto which includes such lines as “chicken soup and a cold compress” or “You’re the doctor? Dr Farty.”

This is not Covent Garden: the piano (played by Alison Luz) was not the best and some of the singing felt strained. But then opera is not easy – and up close there’s no disguising that. Volume was an issue: Dafydd Morris in particular needed to be quieter and some of Belinda Evans’ top notes were designed for a traditional auditorium. Norton-Hale’s production got off to an uncertain start but strong ensemble sections lifted the evening. This may not have been as polished as Jane Austen’s prose but it had plenty of Regency wit.

This review first appeared on

Pub opera: Pint, Peanuts and Puccini

This feature first appeared on The Public Reviews website here

“Opera has died and we need to perform CPR on it.” So declared Adam Spreadbury-Maher, the artistic director of London’s newest (and smallest) opera house last week. The King’s Head pub theatre in Islington – London’s oldest fringe venue – has just announced that it will be switching permanently to musical productions, starting with Rossini’s Barber of Seville on 6 October.

The King’s Head theatre opened in 1970 and countless esteemed thesps have treaded its boards: Kenneth Branagh, Alan Rickman, Rupert Graves, Joanna Lumley. So why, after all this time, has the venue decided to change tack?

Of course, The King’s Head isn’t the first fringe venue to switch actors for altos – nor is Spreadbury-Maher a beginner in the field. As the artistic director of The Cock Tavern Theatre, he recently directed OperaUpClose’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème which has passed the 100 performance benchmark and is now playing at the Soho Theatre. Yet nothing about opera as a form seems to lend itself to the small-scale: gestures are exaggerated, emotions are deliberately overstated and opera singers are trained to project their voices to fill cavernous opera houses. Why, then, has the pub opera phenomenon taken off?

One obvious reason is the ticket prices. Jonathan Miller – whose Cosí fan tutte is currently playing to packed audiences at Covent Garden – is one of the new patrons for The Little Opera House at The King’s Head (along with Mark Ravenhill and Joanna Lumley). Speaking to the Observer recently he said “We are living in a completely unfair society. Many people are very underprivileged in this country, while there are these huge ornamental opera productions being staged. There is something immoral about it.”

Notoriously, opera-goers are white, wealthy, middle-class and middle-aged. And with prices at Covent Garden soaring into the hundreds, it’s hardly surprising that younger people are put off. Tickets for Spreadbury-Maher’s Barber of Seville, on the other hand, are £15 (£13 for concessions): startlingly affordable, as opera goes.

But these productions are not just popular with audiences: pub opera can provide a much needed training ground for young opera singers. While up-and-coming actors have been able to cut their teeth on the fringe scene for years in London, there are limited opportunities for singers – many of whom have studied on opera courses at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama or the Royal Academy of Music.

The King’s Head is not entirely altruistic, of course – pub opera is good business at the moment. Highly trained, enthusiastic, young musicians are willing to perform great music for miniscule fees. And a swathe of new austerity-age audiences are not willing to pay the prices demanded by the big venues.

Upstairs at the Gatehouse is an already established pub opera house and Oliver-John Ruthven will be the musical director for Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the venue from 4 November. For Ruthven, pub opera gives the audience the chance to view opera in a “microscopic way” while the informal setting “allows for a far greater potential for the audience’s world to mix with that of the performers.” Jonathan Miller agrees: the setting is all important. “In doing operas on a very intimate scale, in front of an audience of a hundred at the most, you renovate them.” Miller wants to strip opera of the window-dressing: the gilded venues, the symphony orchestra, the “ridiculous” tradition of dressing up to watch a production.

It’s worth remembering, however, that operas were composed for the gilded venues and symphony orchestras. And while La Bohème’s subject matter chimes with the “everyday” surroundings – above a pub, with a slightly dodgy piano – other works might not fit in so seamlessly. Oliver-John Ruthven warns that this new trend won’t suit all such works: “Not all operas are suited to pub venues because their scale is simply too much to compress into such small spaces.” It remains to be seen how well Mozart’s fantastical The Magic Flute will work in a small venue, or whether the prim and polished characters of Rossini’s Barber of Seville will look impossibly out of place in a room behind the bar.

For now, there can be little doubt that pub opera is in the ascendant. Whether the trend will continue beyond the current “age of austerity” will depend on whether these productions can be more than simply opera in a small space. Pub productions must provide a different experience of opera. It can’t just be a case of Puccini with a pint.

The Barber of Seville previews at The King’s Head, Islington from 5 October; 0844 477 1000. The Magic Flute opens at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate on 4 November; 020 8340 3488.