The Other Barber

I mentioned when reviewing Opera Australia’s Barber that there was another production of the same work in the pipeline. By now it’s actually too late to see Pacific Opera’s season of The Barber of Seville, which finished last weekend. But it’s still worth a comment for the benefit of my two valued readers, and anyone who might contemplate going to their future productions — a course of action I strongly recommend. Pacific Opera is basically a nursery for up-and-coming opera singers, and what it lacks in technical polish and expensive sets it easily makes up for in raw talent, enthusiasm, and smart direction. It was a treat to see it at the Riverside Theatre in my very own cosmopolitan City of Parramatta, for a third the price of an Opera House ticket.

The publicity for this production stresses (as it probably will for future productions) that the story and setting have been ‘updated’ and ‘modernised’. If this is meant to imply a favourable contrast with stuffy ‘traditional’ productions by OA and other established companies, it’s misleading for several reasons. In the first place, since the form has been evolving for four hundred years, there is no such thing as a traditional production for any opera: only derivative and old-fashioned ones. Second, for that matter most productions from mainstream companies are pretty innovative these days. Third, contemporary settings have been commonplace since the 1960s, and are in any case no real guarantee of innovation.

Most importantly, however ‘modern’ and innovative the setting, you don’t want them to muck around with the music to suit someone’s idea of contemporary taste, so publicity that promises to ‘update’ the material may backfire and deter enthusiasts from venturing to the performance at all. I dreaded all sorts of possibilities. Would they truncate the piece and delete my favourite duet? Replace the recitatives with dialogue? Introduce distracting slapstick routines? To my immense relief, they committed no such atrocities. It turned out to be a very intelligent transposition of the setting to contemporary Los Angeles. The acting was terrific: in operatic comedy, as in any other, the trick is to ham it up to just the right degree, without going too far. As for the music, they stuck to the score, having the good sense to trust the music, characterisation and storyline to work their inherent magic rather than without embellish them or attempt to edit out the ‘boring bits’.

When you listen to a recording of an opera you want the world’s greatest singing and playing, but for a stage performance, as long as the music reaches an acceptable standard, it’s the acting, staging, and chemistry between the performers that makes it or breaks it as entertainment. And when the piece is about young love, the production that has performers in their twenties is off to a flying start. A production of Carmen in which the title role and José are played by forty-five year olds is bound to fail as a drama. This applies to Il Barbiere too, but apart from the question of suitability for the parts, I just enjoy seeing youngsters revelling in opera. It brings a tear to the eye in the same way as seeing a bunch of chinese kids discussing the cricket in broad Aussie accents, or Americans articulately critiquing US foreign policy — embracing Truth in defiance of my preconceptions.

In line with the company’s mission to spread the word, they perform the opera in English. I hadn’t heard The Barber in English before, and it works just fine. There have been interminable debates about whether opera should be performed in the original language or that of the audience, but there doesn’t seem to be any definitive answer. I have no strong opinion myself: in my experience Mozart works as well in Swedish as in German and as well in Hungarian as in Italian, and I’m in heaven whatever the language. Certainly a bad translation is worse than no translation, and since English is a light and very flexible language, a good translation is possible in principle for most languages and most operas. Aficionados, who know the plot back to front and listened to recordings in the original language, will probably be predisposed to the original on the basis of familiarity. But anything that can make the performance speak to new audiences, and persuade the sceptical that it’s an art form for them too, has to be a good thing, especially in venues not equipped for surtitles.

Anyway, don’t miss the next one if you’re in Sydney. Shame they don’t tour.

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16 years ago

Interesting, James. Thanks for posting. I saw Il Barbiere last year in Budapest. It was a fantastic performance. And you’re right — to make it work, you need just enough slapstick, but not too much.

On singing in English — I’m not convinced it works. Or at least I’ve never known it to work with Mozart. Take Janacek. Part of his greatness as a composer was the way his operatic music reflects the rhythms of the Czech language.

I once read a translation of Wagner by Andrew Porter who discussed the impossibility of finding an English word to capture the effect of the German word ‘schwert’. ‘Sword’ just doesn’t cut it (ha ha).