Theatre in Wales

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Rousing Rossini

At Opra Cymru

Opra Cymru- Barbwr Sefil , Aberaeron Memorial Hall , September 14, 2013
At Opra Cymru by Opra Cymru- Barbwr Sefil The Wales performance year has a rhythm of familiarity to it, not unlike nature’s own annual cycle. The swallows leave regularly a few days after the August holiday weekend and within a couple of weeks the cluster of touring companies is to be sighted. Frapetsus, Earthfall, Mappa Mundi, Dafydd James are all to come in the next weeks but, as in 2012, the first arrival is Opra Cymru. The company’s new production for 2013 is a rousing, warm, demotic version of Rossini’s most enduring opera.

It is just three years since the company made its debut from its Blaenau Ffestiniog base with a hairshirt “Carmen.” 2013 sees a step up in the touring schedule, the stomping “Macbeth” from 2012 playing alongside at venues from Cardiff to Llandudno.

The company has also stepped up musically. The heart of the Opra Cymru concept of democratic opera is the audience-performer connection. That means that the Aberaeron Hall’s stage remains behind its elegant curtains, and the audience is seated on three sides around the company’s own stage. For 2013 the company of nine singers has a lesser space to itself as a section of the square stage has made way for a musical quartet. The lone pianist who carries an opera is a heroic figure, but the presence of a quartet is a leap in musical texture and depth. The overture is lit up from the start by the counter-play between Eleanor Lighton’s flute and Jonathan Guy’s clarinet.

A good production grabs its audience within minutes. Phil Gault’s Figaro is a presence of relaxed insouciance and his first aria earns a round of applause. Elgan Llỹr Thomas’ first aria, sung to just an accompanying few notes of guitar, blends intensity with sweetness of tone. From a stage just eighteen inches high the sound of the human voice achieves a closeness and immediacy that is distinctively Opra Cymru’s own. The first act closes on a dramatic high with the comically farcical failed arrest. Nine voices are on stage to glorious, roof-raising effect.

Huw Enron’s Bartolo, with a silver goatee of a beard, is all frock-coated mean temper and later oily subservience to the visiting music teacher. Rossini has structured his work so that it is twenty minutes before Rosina’s first aria. The presence of Gwawr Edwards has a particular resonance for this venue. The home village of Bethania is just a handful of miles inland and a first piano teacher from primary school days is in the audience. Her Rosina melds coquettish ebullience with high determination and her first aria is a ravishing performance.

The design is no more than a stage in white, a desk, a chair, and half-dozen pot plants, offering cover for the characters to hide behind. Outside, the September nights may be fast cooling but on stage Gareth Brierley’s lighting creates a sense of Mediterranean warmth and brightness to infuse the Sevillean setting.

“Barbwr Sefil” has regular scenes of linking recitative. At this close distance they call for a high measure of acting finesse. Director Patrick Young achieves the balance between explication and the exaggeration of farce. Robin Gruffudd Hughes has the ability to arch his eyebrows high in times of trouble. Figaro displays within a few minutes his impishness by snipping half a moustache from one of his customers. When Almaviva impersonates the music teacher it is in the guise of a dippy hippie with Marc Bolan hair. It is a reminder that the biggest budgets in the world can provide a sumptuousness of set, costume or orchestration, but there is one element that they cannot ensure. That is directorial wit.

Other members of the company include Sioned Young for the libretto, Gareth Glyn for the adaptation, Elin Wyn Erfyl Jones as Berta, Helen Davies on piano and Joe Blomfield on cello. The chorus, barber customers and police squad are Conal Bembridge-Sayers, Iwan Davies and Michael Vincent Jones.

No opera comes into being without dedication, passion and a lot of supporters. Familiar names are to be seen, but the roll of thanks to smaller supporters includes Tafarn Y Pengwern and Alton Murphy of Porthmadog. The items of his profession around Figaro’s waist may be taken as courtesy of Siop Barbwr Ellis, also of Porthmadog.

A Ceredigion audience knows its music and it takes something special to prompt it to its feet. “Barbwr Sefil” gets it, a standing ovation and wall-shuddering applause. Three years is a short time in a company’s life; Opra Cymru is now a shimmering diamond in Gwynedd’s artistic scene.

“Barbwr Sefil” continues until 28th September at Pontyberem, Cardiff, Bangor, Cricieth, and Builth Wells.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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