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The Barber of Seville *****

Barbarigo-Minotto Palazzo, Venice, 22 September 2016

Anthony Bordain, chef and writer, says that when recalling the most memorable meals of his life, he realises that the essential quality of the food is only one of the many ingredients that have contributed to the experienced. There are, in addition, contextual factors to be considered, such as the ambience, the surroundings, the company, what happened before you sat down. A propitious and happy combination of all these elements puts the meal at the top of the league table.

If this is true of food, it is also surely true of art. And a more sublime contextual factor than a candlelit salon in the Barbarigo-Minotto Palazzo on the Grand Canal, Venice, on an evening of golden light, for a performance of The Barber of Seville, is difficult to imagine. When beautiful performances are added to that context, as they were on September 4, the evening becomes one that will live long in the memory. It was utterly enchanting.

La Musica a Palazzo is an association of musicians who since 2005, has performed travelling opera in the fifteenth century palace at the tip of San Marco. They have revived the early nineteenth century style of Salotto Musicale, with opera performed in an intimate space without a stage. The audience never numbers more than seventy.

The actors change from night to night and opera to opera, but the four piece orchestra is resident: Diego Revilla on violin, Patrizia Di Paolo on viola, Patrick Monticoli on the cello and Giovanni Dal Missier, the musical director, on piano. La Musica Palazzo has a three opera repertoire, with La Traviata and Rigoletto also performed on alternate nights of the week.

While the foundation of the Barbarigo Minotto Palazzo is Gothic, the interiors are all high Venetian baroque. The main performing space is the piano nobile, with frescoes by Tiepolo, but the opera begins in the portego (central hall) and ends in bedroom with an alcove decorated by eighteenth century stuccoes where Count Alamiva (Massimo Cagnin), now undisguised, can enjoy his final lusty reconciliation with Rosina (Lara Matteini) while Figaro (Alberto Zanetti) looks on dazedly. The audience is moved on from elegant interior to the next according to the act.

For opera like this on a minimal scale, the cast of The Barber of Seville is slimmed down to four characters: the count of Almavia, Figaro, Rosina and Bartolo. There is no Basilio, Berta, Ambrogio or Fiorello.

From the moment when the elegant Venetian lady who had greeted us and taken our tickets dimmed the lights, seamlessly becoming part of the performance by changing into the costume of an maid in the era of Don Juan and lighting candles as the four piece orchestra began the overture, merely two or three yards away, I was completely transported. They had me and didn’t let go for the next two hours.

The setting is so intimate and the audience is so close, members of it sometimes sitting right alongside performers on an eighteenth century couch, that it has to become part of the performance. This is the purpose of the Musicale Salotti: to enhance interaction between musicians, performers and audience. As Musica A Palazzo says, distance between all three elements is cancelled and gives the audience the sense of living opera “from within.”

So the fourth wall is non-existent. Lines of the libretto were given directly to one audience member or another, I was given a bottle of champagne to hold and another particularly fortunate ticket holder comforted Rosina on his lap as she wept.

This was done so artlessly and playfully and with such humour that it was difficult not to be utterly won over. Necessarily, stage effects were rudimentary. The thunderstorm before the finale in Act II was represented very simply by the lights being flickered on and off. But this is what theatre at its very best is often like: simple and direct, and not too troubled by realism, so that the audience is led down the path of imagination.

While staging was extremely simple, each actor was beautifully and elegantly attired in costumes designed by Anthony Knight, inspired by period clothing. There was nothing static about the direction; rather it moved rapidly with great use of the often tiny spaces.

The singing was generally glorious, and to be only a yard or two away from remarkable voices was, quite literally, spine tingling. Cagnin’s (as Almaviva) voice has piercing purity, but what was most arresting about his performance was its relaxed playfulness. He seemed as comfortable in these surroundings and in these costumes as he would in the local osteria sipping prosecco.

Zanetti as Figaro brings multiple different colours and textures to the role, and, once more, gave a performance of great humour and comedic flair. He reached all the possible layers and was sexy with it. Largo al factotum was a show-stopper, as indeed it should be.

Dario Giorgele, as Bartolo, rattles the chandeliers with the richness of his bass, and is able to bring some dignity to a role which suffers multiple indignities and humiliations. While there was nothing technically wrong with Matteini’s Rosina, times she occasionally appeared a little disconnected from the moment. You can’t hide anything from a distance of six feet. It’s as unforgiving as being on camera).

This, however, is the most minor of quibbles. It was a night of rare magic and joy. The technical accomplishment of the musicianship and singing may be surpassed by other performances, but not, I think by the constellation of ingredients provided by the Musica a Palazzo.

Musica a Palazzo is in London on December 9 and 10, performing La Traviata at Trinity House. I can’t promise the setting will match a fifteenth century palazzo on the Grand Canal in late summer, but it will be opera as you have never experienced before.


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