Tag Archives: Sir Thomas Allen

Scottish Opera / Barber of Seville

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

It’s sixteen years since Sir Thomas Allen first staged his frisky production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville for Scottish Opera, but the years have been good to it. This is its second revival and with a new cast to mould, a pithy English translation by Amanda Holden, and fresh thoughts on the pantomimic shenanigans of an opera he knows so well as a performer, Allen has given it a bright new sheen.

Visually, Simon Higlett’s set designs maintain a period solidity, the inner pandemonium of Dr Bartolo’s house, in which Rosina’s quarters are a mezzanine boudoir overlooking the pick’n’mix  furnishings of the main living area. The latter provides a dynamic backdrop to a dynamic production. 

Allen insists on detail, every one of his characters permanently up to something, even when they’re out of the spotlight. A jokey stumble here, a mischievous glance there. There’s almost too much going on at times to take it all in, but that’s the joy of it all, to stimulate sensory intoxication.

The casting is inspired, at the centre of which is a truly mesmerising Simone McIntosh as Rosina. She commands every scene she inhabits, a woman with enough guile to outsmart her ineptly predatory guardian Bartolo, but not without the gentlest of charm, and topped by a vocal performance capable of assimilating virtuosic agility with lyrical enchantment.

She’s just one of a winning team. David Stout’s Bartolo is a triumph of character, his delusional intentions towards his ward brilliantly amplified by impeccable comic timing. In tenor Anthony Gregory there’s a purposeful Count Almaviva, slightly sinister, mostly self-possessed, always on the look out for the next opportunity. After an edgy start on opening night, his voice relaxed into a seamless flow of bel canto. 

Samuel Dale Johnson’s dashing Figaro also took time to settle vocally, but soon found its true mojo and a characterisation rich in humour and virile nuance. John Molloy presents Don Basilio as deliciously precious – pomposity combined with defensive intent. And it’s heartening to see such exemplary performances from Scottish Opera Emerging Artists Ross Cumming (unceasingly expressive as the Officer) and Ukrainian soprano Inna Husieva as Berta, whose sole aria is a wonderfully disarming oasis of reflection. 

There are minor issues in balance between stage and pit that will doubtless calibrate themselves as the run progresses, but the Scottish Opera Orchestra under Stuart Stratford’s direction is as lively and receptive as the theatrical spectacle on stage. This is a operatic comedy at its best, literally laugh-a-minute.

Ken Walton

(Picture credit: James Glossop)

Scottish Opera’s The Barber of Seville is in Glasgow till 22 October; Edinburgh 3-11 Nov; Inverness 16 & 18 Nov; Aberdeen 23 & 25 Nov. Full details at www.scottishopera.co.uk 

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

Scottish Opera / Don Giovanni

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

From the flashing of the house-lights, thunder sound effects and appearance of a masked figure behind the gauze at the beginning of the overture, there is a Hammer Horror kitsch element to Sir Thomas Allen’s Gothic Venice-set Don Giovanni, Simon Higlett’s clever adaptable designs for the Theatre Royal’s restricted space beautifully lit by Mark Jonathan. Even the chorus scene of Zerlina and Masetto’s pre-nup party is very monochrome, and only Kitty Whately’s Donna Elvira costume – is her character choosing to be a scarlet woman? – provides a flash of colour.

That scenic palette is, however, in stark contrast to almost every other element of a subtle production. Starting in the pit, where natural trumpets sit alongside modern horns, and the continuo playing is superbly balanced with the orchestra’s big dramatic moments, this an evening in which nothing is over-played. Giovanni can be performed very effectively as melodrama, but this narrative staging is much more interested in realism, even soap opera – in a good way.

All the central characters are believably human, with the inevitable exception of Keel Watson’s stocky vengeful Commendatore, who spends most of the evening cast in stone, after his initial appearance as a worried father. The physical balance between Zachary Altman’s miserable but venal Leporello and Roland Wood’s cavalier, single-minded Don Giovanni is pretty much ideal, which is often not the case. That casting common-sense runs through the principal roles, with Whately at once the most authoritative of the women and the most vulnerable, and Korean soprano Hye-Houn Lee, in glorious voice as Donna Anna, somehow revelling in her victimhood. Completing a top trio of female performances, Lea Shaw, who is in her second year as a Scottish Opera Emerging Artist, grows more confident in each role she undertakes, and is both blowsy and naïve as Zerlina.

Besides Altman, the other company debuts come from Emyr Wyn Jones as Masetto and Pablo Bemsch as Don Ottavio – Zerlina’s low-born fiancé likeable but dim, Donna Anna’s effete courtier equally useless but whose equivocal arias are exceptionally well sung.

With the focus clearly on the ensemble work from trio to septet, no-one pitches for the applause in their solos, and given the liveliness of the show elsewhere, some of these stand-and-sing moments seem the weakest elements, regardless of the quality of the singing. By comparison, the end of Act 1, when the stage is full of distractions to cover Giovanni’s seduction of Zerlina, including an early ghostly appearance by the Commendatore, is quite masterly, and the perfect set up for the intricate music of that septet.  

The stage-craft of Allen and his cast, with choreographer Kally Lloyd-Jones and James Fleming and Gary Connery directing fights and stunts, is top drawer, and even the sub-Cyrano business of Giovanni and Leporello swapping clothes and identities at the start of Act 2 is dispatched with casual ease.

While there is never any doubt who is villain of the piece – Wood is consumed by flames and booed at the curtain call – no-one escapes censure in Da Ponte’s libretto or in this production.  In the closing sextet, often omitted in years gone by,  they sing that Giovanni’s death was a fair result for his evil life. The ambiguity in the air is whether their share of culpability might also prove a stumbling block on the path to the Pearly Gates.

Keith Bruce

Performance sponsored by Miller Samuel Hill Brown. Touring to Inverness, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

Picture: Roland Wood (Don Giovanni) and Lea Shaw (Zerlina) by James Glossop