Comic romp takes a holiday by the sea

The Times, 21 July 2005

There's one good reason to be grateful to Giovanni Paisiello for his 1782 setting of Beaumarchais’s comedy: Mozart saw it in Vienna and liked it so much that he decided to do the sequel. Paisiello’s Barber is a kind of shorthand version of the story, composed in telegraph style for the St Petersburg court because of Catherine’s short attention span.

It whips through the familiar tale with marginally shifted emphasis: Figaro fades away a bit after the first scene, the love story between Rosina and “Lindoro” comes to the foreground, following the sensibilities of the time, and Paisiello milks some human warmth out of the story where Rossini turns out a brittle commedia romp in his more famous version.

Jeremy Gray’s productions at Bampton Classical Opera, the cheapest and most cheerful of open-air summer venues, have always indulged his weakness for the surreal, and Seville here was replaced by an English seaside holiday camp of timeless ghastliness.

Bartolo, sung by Paul Carey Jones with the pressure-cooker madness of a Basil Fawlty, keeps Rosina locked in a caravan. Figaro’s peripatetic life has brought him here as an orange coat whose mower is handily equipped with barber’s pole, and he carries out his shaving assignments with a pair of garden shears.

So far so restrained, indeed. What follows is a madcap comedy done with the usual ensemble pizzazz that this little company musters: Nicholas Merryweather’s bluff and adept Figaro, Marc Labonnette the creepily prissy Basilio, Adrian Dwyer an attractive and hard-working Almaviva, and Rebecca Bottone as little Rosina, a pert tease singing with gorgeous clarity and focus.

The music is worth it, too: a vivid score brightly conducted by Paul Hoskins with a particular delight in violin scallopings and a compelling way with relentlessly accelerating finales.

There’s plenty of Leporello in Figaro’s music, a prototype Voi che sapete -type serenade and a final septet of restorative benediction, plus a cavatina for Rosina that makes you realise that she’s the same girl as Mozart’s: burbling woodwind, muted strings and the voice arching upwards with a soul and passion that lift this little comedy into some other place entirely.

Robert Thicknesse