WA baritone James Clayton is Figaro.
A forced return from COVID-encumbered Europe has tipped an artist well versed in stern, steely roles into Rossini’s jack-of-all-trades as smoothly as Figaro works his trickster ways with the counts and dons who should know better.
From an entrance that flouted all theatrical convention, Clayton took over West Australian Opera’s rendition of The Barber of Seville with boisterous bravura and bonhomie.
His aria, Largo Al Factotum, was a blur of gesture and vocal quality, hitting every bit of “black on page”, as he calls it, and lighting up the auditorium.
That he was backed by excellence in the other roles made this production, developed by Queensland, Seattle and New Zealand operas, a breath of fresh air in a world starved of theatrical extravaganza.
Brigitte Heuser, as the lovelorn Rosina, combined pyjamas and peignoir with aplomb for her entrance, Una Voce Poco Fa (There’s a Voice that I Enshrine).
Sweet-as from the start, she also showed steel in the gritty determination of the lyric – “If rubbed the wrong way I’ll become a viper”.
She was complemented by Michael Petruccelli as Count Almaviva, Rosina’s willing love interest and Figaro’s easily led client, with a warm and tender introduction in his serenade, Ecco Ridente in Cielo – all while mounted on airstairs and accompanied by an onstage mariachi band of male choristers.
On the darker side of the ledger, Robert Hofmann as Don Basilio rang out La Calumnia, the invocation of innuendo, with all the timing and expression of a seasoned musical theatre aficionado.
His guile gunned up Warwick Fyfe as Dr Bartolo, Rosina’s guardian and would-be seducer, a picture of pantomime pomposity and rich timbre; a blend of menace and mirth worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Add in Naomi Johns as Berta, the housekeeper, and Brendan Hanson as the servant Ambrogio, and the household took on shades of the Addams family.
Indeed the whole show, under revival director Jason Barry-Smith, was a paean to pastiche, which Clayton aptly described as “cartoonish”; style, era and genre mixed and matched, and more than one nod to COVID.
From the opening notes of the overture the stage became a series of portals: with more doors and windows than an Advent calendar in all colours of the rainbow, in and out of which cast and chorus ran enough plotlines for a whole series of Looney Tunes, rather than the one episode starring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd that riffs off Rossini’s score.
Slapstick was never far away, keeping pathos at bay; though Heuser and Johns each had a moment before the chaotic comedy returned.
Burhan Guner, conducting from the pit for the first time, kept the measure with an A-team of WA Symphony Orchestra musicians, occasionally tested by the sheer vibrant energy.
The fact no one tumbled was perhaps credit to rehearsal choreographer Margaret Helgeby Chaney.
Set and costumes by Tracy Grant Lord and lighting by Matthew Marshall put the icing on a cake of many layers, with wit the bright cherry on top.
Act One closed in an ensemble display that was part-dream, part-dance macabre, the principals withdrawing to cluster around Bartolo’s armchair, singing softly over the chorus with light on their faces as if they had just tuned into the telly.
And the Act Two finale was a riot of colour and movement where everyone seemed to get their wish, with a delicious reveal: Clayton pairing up in the dance with chorister Prudence Sanders – his co-star when The Marriage of Figaro comes around later this year.