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Few opera singers develop a career beyond singing and teaching. Placido Domingo famously tries to conduct and run two companies simultaneously. Brigitte Fassbaender has developed a second career as manager of the Innsbruck Opera. Others have turned, with limited success, to stage direction. That is the path chosen by Sir Thomas Allen, the UK’s most internationally experienced baritone. Scottish Opera’s The Barber of Seville is his first production for an established company.
Allen, 63, can still sing, as his brilliant Pangloss (Candide) at this year’s Edinburgh festival demonstrated. But over the past three years he has tried his hand at directing in out-of-the-way places, and his Barber confirms that he knows what he is doing. Like Tito Gobbi and Renata Scotto before him, he shows little intention of straying beyond operas he sang in. His Rossini shows no urge to impose a novel interpretation. That is not a singer’s priority. The aim is to marry character to music – exactly what Allen achieves with his cast.
His Barber scores with an ingenious set (Simon Higlett) that conjures the breadth and depth of Dr Bartolo’s musty townhouse. The period is roughly a century ago and the action is imbued with an understated sense of comedy: no cheap gags but plenty of unforced laughs. Characterisation is good-natured, the ensemble-work eloquently composed. Such qualities are hardly headline-grabbing, but are what Scottish Opera needs as it re-establishes its credentials. The company’s fortunes are on the up.
It helps to have a Scot leading the cast. Karen Cargill may have made her career elsewhere and in other repertoire, but she trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, across the road from Glasgow’s Theatre Royal, and she brings a welcome touch of international class, handling her weighty voice with impeccable Rossinian style. In spite of the frumpish costume, her Rosina is a natural comedienne. Apart from Nicholas Folwell’s properly Italianate Bartolo, the other singers come from a more ordinary world. Augmented by mandolin and pianoforte, the orchestra under Sergio La Stella sounds inspired – and Scottish Opera has the sort of revivable show it desperately needs.