United States Rossini, Il barbiere di Siviglia: Opera Philadelphia, soloists, Corrado Rovaris (conductor), Academy of Music, Philadelphia, 5.10.2014 (BJ)
Fiorello: Sean Plumb
Il Conte d’Almaviva: Taylor Stayton
Figaro: Jonathan Beyer
Rosina: Jennifer Holloway
Dr. Bartolo: Kevin Burdette
Ambrogio: Mike Rissinger
Berta: Katrina Thurman
Don Basilio: Wayne Tigges
An Officer: Johnathan McCullough
Director: Michael Shell
Sets: Shoko Kambara
Costumes: Amanda Seymour
Lighting: Driscoll Otto
Wigs and Make-up: David Zimmerman
Chorus Master: Elizabeth Braden
Opera Philadelphia’s production of Rossini’s evergreen Barber of Seville was, to use an inelegant but absolutely appropriate expression, a gas. Reading Michael Shell’s “Director’s Notes” in the program before curtain up had me worried: what was to be expected from a director who confesses to having “never really liked this opera”? By the end of the article, he has confessed his “new love” for it, and I am happy to say that his production was a delightful expression of it.
The first enjoyable thing about the stage action was there was none of it until the last few measures of the overture. Directors these days far too often raise the curtain all through that putatively preludial music, presenting all sorts of antics at a time when I want to be in the darkened theater facing a closed curtain and enjoying the traditional sense of excited anticipation. Presumably they do it because, in these days of prevailing visual overload, they don’t trust their audiences to be able to sit through five or ten minutes of music without something to occupy their eyes. Shell made no such mistake.
We were all free therefore, without distraction, to enjoy a sparkling performance of the overture under the direction of the company’s music director, Corrado Rovaris (though I have to say, this being the first performance I have attended at the Academy of Music after a nearly nine-year absence, that the venerable theater’s acoustics seem in that time to have become even drier than they were around the turn of the century—a dryness that drove the campaign to build the newer Verizon Hall, now an excellent environment for orchestral sound).
Once the curtain had gone up, to reveal Shoko Kambara’s efficient and wittily decorated set, we were presented by director and cast alike with a veritable cornucopia of ideas, most of which worked to highly comic effect, all of which were in harmony with the ethos of the work, and none of which conflicted in any way with the nature of the characters charged with bringing them to expression. The first pithy joke was the supertitles’ labeling of the period of the action as “B.C. (Before Cell-phone”—because, of course, the said action, as in so many stories set in that seemingly prehistoric time, would not have happened if the characters had possessed the means of simply calling each other up. Perhaps the neatest idea of all was to have a news kiosk on stage displaying a magazine with Almaviva’s photograph on the front cover, so that in Act I Scene 2, when he needs to establish his identity to avoid arrest, he can simply show the police officer his face next to the copy he is carrying.
Those characters included a rich-voiced Figaro with a strong comic sense in Jonathan Beyer. Taylor Stayton’s Count Almaviva was attractively and brilliantly sung, with a rare and impressive clarity of definition between all the notes in his many rapid runs, and he seized the chance to shine in the big final aria drawn in part from “Non più mesta” in another Rossini opera, La Cenerentola. There was fine singing in rich mezzo-soprano tone from Jennifer Holloway as a feisty Rosina. All three of these, moreover, were as accomplished dramatically as vocally, and Holloway in particular looked just perfect for her role.
Even funnier was the Dr. Bartolo of Kevin Burdette, who displayed something of a genius for physical comedy—he has not merely a rubber face but a rubber body. His negotiation of the part’s tongue-twisting patter, too, was spectacular. Wayne Tigges’s Don Basilio was suitably uncomprehending of the tricks that were being played on him. Katrina Thurman made a sympathetic Berta, and sang her one aria well. The Ambrogio of Mike Rissinger raised a laugh whether he was being catatonic or seemingly sleepwalking across the stage. And Johnathan McCullough and the chorus made just the right impression as a fairly clueless bunch of policemen.
Amanda Seymour’s costumes, varied in period and harmonious in color, and Driscoll Otto’s lighting were perfectly in synch with the spirit of the production. Quite rightly, there was no attempt to weigh Rossini’s and his librettist Cesare Sterbini’s opéra d’esprit down with the kind of profoundly human feeling Mozart and Da Ponte explored in Le Nozze di Figaro, the dramatic sequel to Barbiere that they had written thirty years earlier. As Peter Kazaras put it in connection with the equally brilliant Barbiere he directed for Seattle Opera four years ago, Rossini’s opera is closer than Mozart’s to the commedia dell’arte tradition, in which “subtlety and depth of character are less apparent and valuable than fleetness and dexterity.” Those last-named qualities ruled in abundance both in Kazaras’s production and in this one by Michael Shell. I can recall few other operatic evenings on which I have laughed so much, or had so much clean and impeccably stylish musical fun.