Returning to Rossini

Sir Thomas Allen talks to Keith Bruce about the latest revival of the Scottish Opera production that launched his directorial career in the UK

The tactic failed to prevent a famously disastrous first night, but Rossini originally named The Barber of Seville after another of the characters created by Beaumarchais, Count Almaviva, to appease fans of an earlier opera version of the play.

Reflecting the role that has attracted most attention in Sir Thomas Allen’s staging, the Scottish Opera production that is revived for a second time this month might accurately be entitled Rossini’s Rosina.

Figaro the Barber had been one of the baritone’s signature roles when Allen made his directorial debut for a professional company in the UK with the production in 2007. His first Rosina was Karen Cargill, described as “sassy, spirited and stylish” by Opera magazine, proving the mezzo “as accomplished a Rossinian as she is a natural comedienne”.

When the show was revived in 2011, Claire Booth received the plaudits as the star of the cast in the same role, while praise was also heaped on Allen’s clever handling of the detail of the convoluted plot. When it opens at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal on Tuesday October 17, this year’s Rosina is Sir Tom’s own choice of Swiss-Canadian Simone McIntosh, making her company debut after representing Canada in BBC Cardiff Singer of the World.

“I saw her when I was adjudicating a big competition in Montreal, which she won,” the director told VoxCarnyx. “I made two phone calls immediately afterwards – one to my agent suggesting they sign her up, and the other to Alex Reedijk at Scottish Opera.”

Although ScotOp’s General Director secured the mezzo’s services for the revival, there was then some hesitation on her part when it was decided to use an English translation of the libretto this time round.

Allen admits that he initially shared some of her doubts about that, but he is pleased that his Rosina decided to stay on board.

“At the start of my own career, everything I did was in English,” he notes, “but singers have bigger opportunities earlier these days and are seen in a wider field. I think she thought that learning the part in English was a waste of energy, so I had to persuade her.”

It is not hard to imagine Sir Tom being effectively persuasive, as he peppers his conversation with charming anecdotes and pin-sharp impressions, although he describes his rehearsal room technique modestly.

“The beauty of it is that you take the cast that has been put together and they bring their individual skills. Then you thrash your way through it and mould it into a cohesive whole  – you hope!”

The focus on detail that audiences have appreciated in Allen’s Scottish Opera productions suggests that his approach is perhaps a little more forensic than that.

When he talks about the switch to Amanda Holden’s libretto in English, for example, it is questions of comic timing and specific pauses in the delivery of the line that he mentions. “Translations are often funny because they have a rhyming scheme of their own,” he adds.

The acting side of a singer’s life is something about which Allen is now particularly well-qualified to speak. His next job, after the Rossini has opened for its Scottish tour, is an acting role with Opera Zuid in the Netherlands, playing Leo, the titular character in a new version of Mozart’s Der Shauspieldirektor by writer, director and singer Christopher Gillett.

It follows the acclaimed Grange Festival version of King Lear, directed by Keith Warner, that employed an entire company of opera stars, with Sir John Tomlinson as Lear, Allen as Gloucester, Susan Bullock as Goneril, Louise Alder as Cordelia and Kim Begley as the Fool. (More about that can be found in the Vox Carnyx interview with composer Nigel Osborne, who wrote the music for the production.)

“I think it worked because we were free to explore a lot of new ideas for ourselves,” Allen remembers of the Lear project. “What we as singers are not accustomed to is finding the musical line in a verse of Shakespeare, because we are usually provided with that by the composer.”

“There are always comparisons made between singing and an actor’s life, but singers wake up every day worrying about their voice. And you do that without realising the pressure for – speaking personally – 50 years, so it’s great when you stop and discover there is another way of living.”

Of course that is only partly true, because although Allen now has other strings to his bow, he is still performing on the opera stage himself, on the eve of his 80thbirthday.

“Yes, I am still singing, much to my surprise,” he says. “I had intended finishing completely at the end of 2019 but then Glyndebourne made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

That role is Baron Zeta in Lehar’s Merry Widow, which he sang alongside Renee Fleming at the Met in New York. Next summer in Sussex he reprises the Baron in a new Cal McCrystal staging, with John Wilson in the pit and Danielle de Niese in the title role.

“I’ve never gone out of my way to seek work, and when I started I wanted to sing lieder and oratorio rather than opera. I think it was the bank manager who pointed out the discrepancy in earning potential!”

The Barber of Seville opens in Glasgow on Tuesday October 17 and tours to Edinburgh, Inverness and Aberdeen until the end of November.

Picture of Sir Thomas Allen in rehearsals for The Barber of Seville by Julie Howden