Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
1:00 AM 25th November 2023

Newcastle Is Peru: The Barber Of Seville In Bradford

Image by Karol Wyszynski
Image by Karol Wyszynski
With the collective sentiments so thoroughly slapped and tickled, and the audience washed-up in a tide of goodwill, it would be both pointless and churlish to find fault in Thursday’s premiere of The Barber of Seville at Bradford’s St George’s Hall. And if the poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan’s Yorkshire dialect take on Rossini’s comic masterpiece stretched credulity to breaking point, it didn’t matter a whit.

For here was an adaptation, and a libretto, that were never intended to be faithful to the original. Shift the scene from eighteenth century Spain to contemporary Bradford, bring on the flat caps, the blunt sardonic humour and an inventory of beloved expletives – think ‘arsehole’, ‘knobhead’ and ‘bollocks’ – and you apprehend the slightest measure of purpose, which combined comedy, entertainment and an artful recalibration of linguistic nuance to celebrate our region’s rich demotic. It worked in spades.

Rossini’s opera of mishap, misunderstanding, artful wooing, deception and final reconciliation was served wonderfully well by an ensemble of singers whose enthusiasm overcame any cavil regarding the language diversity of their personal origins. In fact, the differential worked to good, if counter-intuitive, effect. Not least in the case of the Armenian baritone, Arshak Kuzikyan, who, as the ultimately spurned Dr Bartolo, made witty play of the Yorkshire vernacular with emphatic misplacements of local pronunciation.

Image by Karol Wyszynski
Image by Karol Wyszynski
Elsewhere, an armoured division of consonantal violence and flat vowels gave latitude for some reinforced asides and sudden end-stopped hiatuses whose presence cast a wink to a complicit audience. Such self-referentiality is a winning device: it was a joy to hear the fine mezzo Felicity Buckland, marooned in the balcony like a lovestruck Juliet, regaling us with an aria about an aria.

Careening around the theatre’s aisles at the slapstick pace of the Keystone Cops, the performers gave a rendering that compensated overwhelmingly for the lack of what used to be known as ‘production values’ with sheer verve and energy. And it was at such moments that Oscar Castellino, as the manipulative and joyous matchmaker Figaro, came to the fore, somehow transmuting wit from a surfeit of physical energy as he spun and lurched around the stage and auditorium like Norman Wisdom in full-throated harmony. A powerful and fitting counterpoint to the rich tapestry of tenor Samuel Kibble, as Figaro’s protégé Count Almaviva, Castellino’s baritone was an unrestrained whirlwind, an embodiment of uplift made the more convincing by the contrast; the self-aggrandising character of Figaro does not demand consistent subtlety of exposition.

But the most resonant undertow in this drama of breakneck velocity, was the fixed point of Julian Close’s extraordinarily deep and suggestive bass. As Basilio, Rosina’s music teacher, Close gave a sonorous and velvety reading whose presence yielded a lovely antithesis to the coloratura ornamentation of both Felicity Buckland, and Milana Sarukhanyan as Bertha, the governess.

Image by Karol Wyszynski
Image by Karol Wyszynski
And we shouldn’t forget the glue that held the ship together, in another fitting nod to a production that above all else foregrounds our region’s musical traditions: the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra, whose renowned director, Ben Crick, conducted the proceedings with cheerful vivacity and no little aplomb. Himself a Yorkshireman, Crick maintains strong musical links with the area, and if Thursday evening’s performance was an exercise in dramatic license it was made no less persuasive by the sense of good humour that permeated orchestra and singers alike in the creation of a performance of vigorously prosecuted skill and roof-lifting joy.

Or, the efforts of Barnsley’s own poet and wit, who, together with Ben Crick and director and dramaturge, Alex Chisholm, brought this most unlikely of projects to fruition. If the concluding ovation at St George’s Hall was any gauge, you could say they succeeded.

The Barber of Seville was performed at St George’s Hall, Bradford on 23rd November.

Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra

Libretto by Ian McMillan

Conductor: Ben Crick

Director: Alex Chisholm

Company including: Samuel Kibble, Oscar Castellino, Felicity Buckland, Arshak Kuzikyan, Dr Julian Close and Milana Sarukhanyan

The Chorus

Read Andrew Palmer's interview with Ben Crick and two members of the cast Eeh, By Gum, It’s Rossini, But Don't Worry About It, Yer Daft 'Apeth'