On tour with Rossini's Barber

Brian Hayward

THE BARBER OF SEVILLE. Scottish Opera Go Round

No one can accuse Scottish Opera Go Round of not making opera accessible. A tour of 21 venues from Orkney to Dumfries, calling at village halls in Lochcarron and Ballachulish and schools at Thurso, Linlithgow and Biggar, will please everyone except the stage crew. What is rather more significant is that Opera Go Round is taking "main company" quality to this gallimaufry of stages, with a production of Rossini's Barber of Seville that hasn't compromised any of its production values.

Matthew Lloyd, on loan from the Manchester Royal Exchange, directs the comic opera with an eye for dramatic detail that the broad brush of opera sometimes washes over. He is rewarded by all the roles, especially by Giles Davies, who scores every comic point served to him, and Ivan Sharpe's hunky but cute Count Almaviva, whose lyric register and expressive eyes will probably make him the schoolgirls' favourite.

If Matthew Lloyd has any regrets for this most satisfying production, it may be in the difficulty of making an opera libretto as intelligible as a play text. It may be an unrealistic demand, but school parties, no less than others, want to "hear the words"; even in this clever Robert David Macdonald (of the Citizens Theatre) version, that is not always possible.

There is no shortage of reasons why. Rossini was the tenth composer to use the story, and he must have figured that everybody knew the dialogue already, that it wasn't great literature, and that he needn't let it get in the way of the music. For an extreme example of this, Martin Higgins's love-spurned Doctor Bartolo features an incredibly rapid rendition of his patter song, which won cheers of admiration from the audience.

Then there is the dynamic of the singing voice, and the acoustics of the different venues. On the opening night, among the soft furnishings of Dundee Rep, the voices were reportedly muffled. In Paisley Town Hall, by contrast, the voices shimmered gloriously in the glossy panelling and plaster vaulting. In particular, Michelle Walton's higher registers were deliciously rich and helped make her seductive Rosina irresistible. She is a contract principal with the company and will be back to sing in Cos fan tutte and The Queen of Spades in the newly refurbished Theatre Royal in Glasgow.

With Opera Go Round, the words are never drowned out by the orchestra; they have only a piano and their music director, David Munro, who is now in his fifth year with the company. Whether in the thronging cascades of the overture or in the minimal recitative, he supplies the want of an orchestra so well that Scottish Opera should keep him away from the Scottish Arts Council, lest he give them ideas.

As ever, Jane Davidson, the project director for Scottish Opera's education activities, will be smoothing the path for newcomers to Rossini - young and old. Some venues will get her pre-performance talks and others will have the schools project. Aimed at upper-school arts students, it takes 25 pupils through their own improvised version of the opera which they see afterwards.

Schools get the benefit of Scottish Opera costumes and props, and a team headed by Jane herself for the acting and Stuart Thomas (lecturer in Theatre Arts at Coatbridge College) for the music. Three academies have secured a booking for this tour: Lamlash (on Arran), Dumfries and Linlithgow. And at Motherwell, where the production comes in the week of the October holiday, the Civic Theatre has booked the company for its youth theatre.

Scottish Opera, tel: 0141 248 4567

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