The curtains opened to a bustling scene at a cantina front: the clinking of cold beer bottles, curvy women in high heels, guayabera-clad men seated around tables with guitars and Cuban cigars. In the foreground a rickety bicycle leant on a metal pole, and in the background sat an old piano against a large wall painting of Che Guevara. Surely this could not be 17th century Spain?
Thankfully, the audience had been tipped off by an announcement in the evening’s programme:
“Figaro has racked up too much debt in Seville and decides to escape to Cuba, where he opens a bar and barbershop. Doctor Bartolo has bought a house in Cuba where he keeps Rosina under lock and key.”
The Barber of Seville is a comical story about how the young Count Almaviva, with the help of Figaro and the use of multiple disguises (first a poor student, then a drunken soldier, and finally a music teacher), rescues the lovely Rosina from the clutches of her scheming guardian Doctor Bartolo. Gioachino Rossini’s opera is part one of the famous Figaro trilogy. In particular, it is known for the hearty piece ‘Largo al factotum del città’ from which the vigorous utterance of “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro” before the final rhythmic section has become a pop culture icon for opera.
One thing Rossini might not have seen coming was a pan-Latin fusion production of his score in which the barber Figaro, while singing the above piece, combs out Afros and tweezes eyebrows in a Cuban barbershop. In the hands of director Christine Crouse, what began as an idea necessitated by a restrictive budget turned into a visual masterpiece. The Artistic Team’s collaboration with Final Year Surface Design students from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology gave birth to a stunning set that tempted the rest of us to steal vintage décor ideas for our own homes.
Within such an imaginatively interpreted setting, what helped retain Rossini’s creative essence was an animated performance by the musicians. Leading the cast with a natural flair for drama was Baritone Johannes Slabbert whose Figaro – armed with a magnificently plush moustache (the production was also advertised as “a hair-raising contribution to Movember”) – was every bit the facetious and clever character he was supposed to be. His dramatic vocal articulation and impressive lung capacity certainly lent credence to Rossini’s reputation as “Signor Crescendo”.
Matching Slabbert’s ease and contagious enjoyment on stage was Siyabulela Ntlale as Doctor Bartolo; also heavily moustachioed, his minor quirks in song and demeanour made him a villain easy to love and hate at the same time. The natural drama and vocal prowess of Slabbert and Ntlale served to cast an unfortunate shadow over Makudupanyane Semaoana who, while he had charm, came across as an inexperienced choice for the role of Count Almaviva. So intent was he on singing that he sometimes forgot to act, often looking for cues from maestro Kamal Khan. Perhaps the addition of a moustache might have boosted Semaoana’s stage presence.
Throughout the history of The Barber of Seville, there has always been contention over whether the role of Rosina should be sung by a contralto as originally written by Rossini, or in higher keys by a soprano as dictated by popularity. While I personally tend to lean toward the latter (it’s hard to beat the flashy flaunt of a soprano’s vocal range during the singing lesson scene in Act II, for which singers sometimes showcase their own personal favorites), I have to say that mezzo-soprano Bongiwe Nakani made a strong case for the former. The rich timbre of her voice produced a radiant firecracker of a Rosina who had far more substance than a simple, sweet girl in love.
Honourable mention goes to the side characters who proved absolutely critical in pulling off a successful opera buffa. Ambrogio’s narcoleptic old man antics (Neil Barry Moss), the sneezing housemaid Berta (Janel Speelman), Basilio with his fancy footwork (Thesele Kemane), and even his petite gum-chewing, stiletto-wearing assistant whose hops and skips perfectly matched the score’s pitter-pattering – their collective dynamism kept us laughing all the way through the evening. Also worth noting was the eye-catching choreography work of Movement Director Jackï Job, which coordinated the large cast with ease through complicated sequences. In particular, the sextet ‘Fredda ed immobile’ was choreographed in slow motion in direct correspondence with the lyrics, as well as to pose a visually humorous finale to Act I.
It is said that Beethoven, upon meeting Rossini for the first time, declared, “Give us more barbers.” For one, Rossini was the master of opera buffa and it presumably would have been a waste to see his efforts go elsewhere. And I personally agree that the world could always use more comedy, more laughter. To that end, I’ll take a Cuban production of The Barber of Seville in South Africa any day.
The Cape Town Opera & UCT Opera School’s production of The Barber of Seville was performed at Artscape 20 – 24 November 2013 with a rotating cast each night.