Review : The Barber of Seville
By Perry Tannenbaum
Poor Beaumarchais. A crucial friend of the American Revolution, French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais’s great Figaro comedies have been both favored and scorned by history. Just two years after The Marriage of Figaro premiered in Paris, Mozart’s 1786 adaptation eclipsed the theater version, remaining one of opera’s supreme masterworks to this day. And the Rossini version of the first Figaro play, The Barber of Seville, has a been an operagoer’s favorite ever since its Rome premiere in 1816.
Hardly a month goes by without one of these operas being produced somewhere around the globe. The original Beaumarchais comedies? Not so much. They endure through the operas they inspired.
Rossini was the fifth or sixth composer to adapt The Barber, and undoubtedly the best, for the profusion of memorable melodies in this score has hardly been equaled by any other opera. But popularity can pay a price. Two hundred years after Barber’s triumphant premiere, there are indications that both producers and audiences are wearying of the longtime favorite.
Up in New York, director Bartlett Sher had the opera and the libretto by Cesare Sterbini sliced, diced, and freshly translated for a new family-friendly version at the Metropolitan Opera during the holidays last season. Obviously, the calculus included the notion that the hit parade packaged in a compressed Barber could serve as a gateway to other operas and/or Rossini, for the composer’s Lady of the Lake was among the other operas that I found in the Met’s rotation last December.
Yet there seemed to be some uneasiness from Sher about presenting the classic in the usual way. As a result, baritone Elliot Madore was more of an action hero as Figaro than a razor-stropping conniver, and tenor David Portillo was almost a purely romantic hero as the barber’s co-conspirator, Count Almaviva, further draining the comedy from the evening.
No such trimming, miscalculating, uneasiness, or distortion occurs in Opera Carolina’s current production at Belk Theater. Stage director Bernard Uzan, who directed a delicious Opera Carolina-Piedmont Opera co-production of Barber in 2002, both in Charlotte and Winston-Salem, helps the singers to wed Rossini’s music with Beaumarchais’s comedy even more delightfully this time around.
You can bet that OC general director James Meena, conducting the Charlotte Symphony, is also in on the comedy conspiracy, for his alertness with dynamics and tempo consistently sharpens Rossini’s musical joking. From the orchestra pit up to the stage, with its pitch-perfect scenery and costuming, everybody seems jazzed by the concept of this revival.
No, all the Rossini fatigue in Charlotte seems to be out in the hall, where empty seats gradually dominated the rear of the orchestra section on opening night. At intermission, I looked up at the top balcony, shocked to find that none of the seats up yonder had been sold. Ushers up there enjoying the show could have any seat they wished. Three performances shouldn’t satisfy audience hunger for an outstanding production like this, but unfortunately, hundreds have already missed out on the fun.
It starts with tenor Victor Ryan Robertson, who was so slick and rascally as Sportin’ Life earlier this year in Charleston at Spoleto Festival USA’s production of Porgy and Bess. Disguised as the student Lindoro, Robertson torches Count Almaviva’s lovesick “Ecco ridente in cielo” serenade in the opening scene. The strength of Robertson’s singing promises that he will be as noble and ardent as Portillo was in New York.
But to spirit his sweetheart Rosina away from the decrepit and perverted fingers of her guardian, Dr. Bartolo, Count Almaviva dons two disguises within his Lindoro disguise, first a drunken soldier to be quartered in Bartolo’s home and later a singing teacher to tutor Rosina. Aided by the zany handiwork of wig-and-makeup designer Martha Ruskai, Roberston’s comic stints far excel what I witnessed at the Met, actually upstaging our clever Figaro. In particular, the nasal whine of the tutor, compounded by the dopey look of his coke-bottle eyeglasses, is magnificent overkill if their intent is to calm the rabid jealousies of the vigilant Bartolo.
Of course, it’s Figaro who upstages Almaviva in the opening scene, and Hyung Yun registers a resounding triumph with the most familiar patter song in all opera, the “Largo al factotum.” Yun was not only up to the increasing speed of the aria, he refused to hide behind the language barrier, sounding like he was saying something rather than zipping through an advertising jingle. Sher’s impulse to turn the title character into an action hero was understandable given the tendency for him to devolve into a lovable clown, but Yun’s Figaro remains a clever and resourceful rogue.
No, Figaro doesn’t have to beg like a silly slave when Almaviva and Rosina delay their escape from Bartolo’s home late in Act 2, nor does he need to counsel haste and quiet to the lovers like a sensible big brother. Yun takes a neat middle way, preserving the comedy that Gilbert and Sullivan must have cherished (see the denouement in The Pirates of Penzance). I also appreciated how Yun held up his end of the “Fortunati affeti mei” duet with Rosina in Act 1, Scene 2, earnestly expressing his admiration for women’s aptitude for deceit without becoming – as we usually hear – a mere background drone.
With her crazy Queen of the Night range, soprano Kathryn Lewek was certainly worthy of all the admiration that came her way as Rosina, topping her own Op Carolina debut as Lucia di Lammermoor 18 months ago and topping what I saw and heard from mezzo Isabel Leonard in New York last December. In some respects, she even surpassed the scintillating work of mezzo Vivica Genaux when she sang Rosina here in 2002.
Not only did Lewek reach higher notes in her coloratura flights, she also conspired to deliver more comedy. From the moment she launched into the famed “Una voce poco fa,” proclaiming Rosina’s devilish tendencies, it was obvious the Lewek was capable of meeting the pyrotechnical demands of this showpiece. Uzan was clearly her accomplice in taking Rosina’s coloratura beyond showmanship.
Early on, we get indications from Lewek of what would become deliciously explicit later on – when she and Lindoro, disguised as her tutor, are carrying on in the same room where the hoodwinked Bartolo is getting ready for his shave. Those coloratura flights aren’t merely the showy warblings of a songbird, they are manifestations of uncontrollable sensual delight, triggered each time Almaviva caresses Rosina’s arm. Lewek delivers these passages with sudden surges in volume to enhance the effect. Sensational and comically seductive at the same time.
Stephen Condy as Dr. Bartolo and Kevin Langan as Don Basilio turn in fine performances as the dupes of all this connivance. Bartolo is the dopier dupe, more often in the spotlight, but bass Langan upstages him musically with Basilio’s “La calumnia,” urging a vicious campaign of rumor to drive Almaviva out of town. Condy, a baritone of imposing pomposity, listens stolidly as Langan’s fulminations rise to a stormy peak. Then he responds with a simple no, rounding off a polished comedy gem.
Uzan sprinkles the staging with other comedy nuggets, making sure Basilio’s endless exit is milked as thoroughly in the middle of Act 2 as the lovers’ aborted escape is afterwards. More singular is the slow motion and stop motion that gets layered onto the chaotic ensemble that ends Act 1, built up to pandemonium from a hushed staccato. The same shtick worked well in the 2002 production that Uzan directed here in 2002, so why not bring it back?
After attending a Charlotte Symphony concert just eight days earlier, when I sat up in the grand tier, I found the orchestral sound comparatively muffled as Meena struck up the overture down in the pit. I’d already acclimated to the altered dynamics by the time the curtain rose on pre-dawn Seville. When Meena summoned the music that covers the transition from afternoon to midnight at Bartholo’s home midway into Act 2, it really carried the shocking snap and crackle of an unforeseen lightning storm.
Sure enough, Beaumarchais called for the sound of a terrible storm in the interval between Acts 3 and 4 of his original playscript, sparking more than two centuries of conjecture that he intended his work to be an opera all along. With its exceptional singing and mirth-making, I’d say the current Opera Carolina production of The Barber of Seville fulfills Rossini’s and Beaumarchais’s intentions in equal measure.