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26 June, 2007

Fawlty Towers comes to Sydney in Barber Gala

Barber of Seville, Sydney Opera House

Tuesday 26th June 2007

The glittering opening night audience was unsuspecting. One could not have imagined a more ambitious but less auspicious performance for the start of a long winter opera season.

Warwick Fyfe was ill and younger, tolerably decent baritone, Andrew Moran played Bartolo MD at short notice. José Carbó played an excellent, handsome and comical Figaro but that was about where it ended. The extraordinary set was a Gaudi inspired hotel/spa foyer, staircase and mezzanine. And the guests included S. Dali, painter, loopy lady in fur choker, army colonel, matador in a neck brace and picador with tendonitis, each guest receiving therapy of one kind or another. There was a nurse Rachett who kept putting thermometers into people’s orifices (which was slightly amusing the first time around).

With some imagination the opera set could have been a latter-day episode of “Faulty Towers”. There was a lift-up reception counter, telephone, registration books, electric panel, upstairs rooms, ladder scene, etc. Ambroglio played Manuel played by Jack Webster. Berta played Sybil played by Rosemary Gunn. And a bumptious Bartolo played Basil Faulty (Mr Moran). Yet the humour frequently fell flat in this opera.

I suspect that Amelia Farrugia did exactly the opposite of what Rossini wanted as Rosina (is she Polly?). Light on top, she put in extra notes from the first lines of ‘Una voce poco fa’ and tried some stratospheric frills which did not all work out (and no terminal high F!). A vocal ‘canary’ rather than buxom beauty. No disaster, but hardly a memorable performance.

Henry Choo managed ‘Ecco ridente’ reasonably well but received no applause, despite a (pregnant) musical pause. His falsetto extension is not really acceptable. The thought of singing to a beloved upstairs in the same building was novel, as was ‘escaping’ from a supposed balcony back into the interior of the same building. The whole spa idea just had too many compromises and deviations from the book.

Richard Bonynge seemed to lag in his tempo until the very end of each piece, then bringing things up to the speed you had hoped they might have been all along. The orchestra sounded ill prepared and unbalanced. Apart from the brass being unreliable (blurting, missing, etc) the strings sounded scratchy at times. Brian Castles-Onion played harpsichord reliably.

Joan Sutherland sat with opera boss Adrian Collette in the 7th row of the stalls. I did not see her close up but she seemed to be animated in discussions with others around her. She always looks like she has a stiff neck, and she has certainly lost several vertebral bodies to osteoporosis, the curse of the fairer sex. It is extraordinary to think of the billions of goose bumps she has caused in her 40 years on the opera stage.

There was no sign of regular patron State Governor Marie Bashir MD, a great opera supporter who so ably waves British, Australian and Lebanese flags. She may have stayed away knowing ahead of time that there were problems in the ranks for this Gala.

Needless to say, there was no ‘Piu non resistere’ concluding scene as the tenor, Henry Choo, while quite good, was hardly up to any extras such as this add-on (also found in Cinderella).

The direction of this comedy was uninspired - at times it was tedious. There was no unifying idea beyond people almost bumping into each other and moving chairs around the stage. Figaro did his final whodunit explanatory piece clutching a lantern sideways for no apparent reason (‘I see the light?’). People regularly mounted the centrally placed Art Nouveau faux grand piano - again, to no particular purpose. The costumes looked like they were made of brightly coloured felt and Velcro with painted on ribbons, buttons, etc. Maybe that was how the company actually made a profit last year!

Barber is almost 200 years old (b. 1813) yet it is a survivor and a comic masterpiece. Sydney had a glorious production before the last ‘dolls house’ one and I just don’t know why they did not bring it back rather than spending money on this new, lifeless show. There are still some splendid moments in this, such as the ‘Numero quindici’ duetto in Act I. With tighter routines and timings, this production can only get better. Does a season of 20 shows constitute a record?

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..