Vancouver’s Barber Survives Transplantation

CanadaCanada  Rossini, Il barbiere di Siviglia: Vancouver Opera, soloists, Robert Tweten (conductor), Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Vancouver, British Columbia. 17.3.2012 (BJ)

Director: Denis Garnhum
Set: Allan Stichbury
Costumes: Parvin Mirhady
Lighting: Kevin Lamotte
Chorus Master and Associate Conductor: Leslie Dala

Fiorello: Michael Nyby
Count Almaviva: René Barbera
Figaro: Joshua Hopkins
Rosina: Sandra Piques Eddy
Bartolo: Thomas Hammons
Berta: Barbara Towell
Ambrogio: Angus Bell
Basilio: Thomas Goerz
Sergeant: Willy Miles-Grenzberg

There is a widely held conviction, which goes back at least as far as Samuel Johnson’s 18th-century characterization of it as “an exotic and irrational entertainment,” that opera doesn’t make sense. This was a production ideally calculated to confirm that notion.

Please do not think I am suggesting that this Vancouver Barbiere was a disaster. On the contrary: with a talented cast of singers, strong orchestral and choral work under the direction respectively of Robert Tweten and Leslie Dala, and a varied repertoire of often hilarious visual jokes conjured up by director Dennis Garnhum, it was a thoroughly entertaining show, and just the thing to delight all those audience members who were unacquainted with the work and didn’t care what it was about.

Those of us, however, who know and love the story as Beaumarchais wrote it and as Rossini set Cesare Sterbini’s libretto to music, must have been compelled to a dissenting view. How is it that an opera company—an opera company!—can manage a really brilliant production of a musical like West Side Story and then, in the course of the same season, offer a quite misconceived account of a staple of the operatic repertoire? The answer to that question, as so often these days, is simple: it is directorial arrogance.

That, I am aware, is a strong charge. But what other explanation could be found for the decision to convert Bartolo’s private and closely guarded house, where admittance is gained only with great difficulty, into “a movie studio in 1940s Seville,” through which a whole host of extras is constantly passing? “[W]e hope,” said Mr. Garnhum’s note in the program, “not to improve on this perfect opera, but rather to celebrate it and applaud it adoringly.” Yet that aim is hardly to be served by transplanting it into an environment where privacy is impossible; where Rosina seems to be at the same time a movie star and an innocent young girl spotted by Count Almaviva at the market; and where Bartolo—now neither a doctor or a lawyer but a studio owner and artist’s manager—exercises totally pre-modern prerogatives over the young woman he wants to marry.

The pity of it is that, with the exception of the fun the cast had with constant changes of all the many costumes you would expect to find in a movie studio (and my wife, who enjoyed the whole thing more than I did, is convinced that it was this sartorial potential that led the director to choose the locale in the first place), all the jokes would have worked just as well in a production that allowed the plot to make some sense. I suppose it must be due merely to prejudice on my part that I found the costumes of the chorus and the Count in the first scene horrible to look at: one pair of boxer shorts is a distasteful enough sight—a stageful of them scarcely bears imagining.

Ah, well. The true aficionados could at least enjoy watching and listening to an excellent cast, performing on a set (by Allan Stichbury) that was highly effective within the terms of the misguided conception he was called on to put on stage. Joshua Hopkins as Figaro, Sandra Piques Eddy as Rosina, and Thomas Hammons as a splendidly droll Bartolo all sang and acted well, and Michael Nyby’s Fiorello, Barbara Towell’s Berta, Thomas Goerz’s Basilio, and those in smaller roles drew every possible drop of comedy from the extravaganza. The Almaviva, René Barbera, sounded vocally strained in the first act, but then perked up wonderfully, and ended the evening with something of a triumph on his hands.

Good old Rossini—it’s marvelous how his genius shines through even when subjected to distortions. The score was a joy, even when the scene wasn’t.


Bernard Jacobson