By R.M. Campbell
Most likely Seattle Opera has hit on its hands with Rossini’s ineffable comedy, “Il barbiere di Siviglia,” aka “The Barber of Seville,” which opened this weekend at McCaw Hall. Laughter, sometimes guffaws, sometimes giggling, was omnipresent, and the applause at the end was loud and enthusiastic. Seven more performances are scheduled, a sign the company believes there will be that kind of demand at the box office.
Is it necessary to say, once again, nearly 200 years after its premiere, that the opera is a masterpiece, one of the greatest comic operas ever written and the oldest opera of an Italian composer never to go out of the repertory. Cesare Sterbini’s libretto — based on a play by 18th-century French playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron Beaumarchais — is a model of coherency, well-developed personalities, comic situations and marvelous humor that has not worn out its welcome. It remains fresh, even the old jokes. In a fit of genius, Rossini composed the opera in an astonishing two-three weeks, borrowing when necessary from previous works. The music ripples with memorable tunes — lyrical, original, ironic — uncommon elegance and rhythmic acuity.
When the title “Useless Precaution” is projected early on in a line about new operas, it always gets laughs, probably from people who think it is just a joke. In fact, that was the title — more correctly “Almaviva, or the Useless Precaution” — its first night at the Teatro Argentina in Rome to distinguish it from an earlier and popular “Barber” by the 18th-century composer Giovanni Paisiello. It was not long before Rossini’s “Barber” had eclipsed Paisiello’s , although the latter gets occasional revivals in Europe.
The first question every producer of “Barber” must decide is always how to play it: the high spirits in sophisticated and elegant language or in a broad and slapstick fashion. The latter has become a modern tradition. Seattle Opera is certainly in the latter camp, but it never becomes vulgar or always aiming at the lowest level. A hearty laugh is justification for many things but not everything.
Peter Kazaras first came to the notice of Seattle Opera as a tenor in 1985. He made his debut as a director nearly two decades later. Since then he has assumed an important part of the company, both in its Young Artists Program and mainstage productions. He is a director with ideas. They are often vastly inventive, sometimes funny, often telling. The stage of “Barber” was filled with them, either in a large form or a small gesture. The fecundity of his imagination is still quite amazing, at least to me. His staging is pretty slapstick, and sometimes it is very, very funny. But sometimes, I wish he would let the comedy go straight. The long finale to the first act is all gags of one sort or another. There are too many. There needed to be a break somewhere. Unfortunately, his best ideas are at the beginning.
I want to say Kazaras was lucky — and he was of course — but luck can also be of one’s making: that is, he had a gifted cast with which to work, including two Almavivas, Rosinas and Figaros. The young cast all had something to offer, vocally and dramatically, with the weaker members rarely seeming so. But they were guided by a sure hand who played to their strengths. The performance goes by very quickly.
Kazaras was aided by Dean Williamson’s keen, witty conducting. Also a product of Seattle Opera, who has gone on to conducting career, Williamson has a particular affinity for Italian opera. He keeps the tempos bright, the textures transparent. The orchestra was in good shape although the trumpets lacked refinement.
The production– conventional and little routine in design — was originally done for Canadian Opera in Toronto. Its chief virtue is that through a revolving turntable the set — Dr. Bartolo’s house in Seville — has several sides that quickly change for a new scene. Of course, it is all too small of the McCaw stage but it served its purpose. Lighting designer Duane Schuler is not asked to do a lot for “Barber,” but what he does is remarkably effective. Rosa Mercedes is the choreographer. She, too, is not asked to do much but she does it with a sense of authenticity and style. Discretion too.
There was much to admire with the singers. All have a modicum of stage presence, and in most cases, well more than that. The two Figaros are Jose Carbo, in his American debut Saturday night, and David Adam Moore Sunday afternoon. They are superb, immensely theatrical, vivid physically and handsome to boot. One more thing — a lot of charm and an ability to hold the stage easily. Carbo, born in Argentina, in addition to his vocal panache and general swagger, lends a Spanish nuance, both in smallest of gestures and what dancing he has to do. Moore is not quite so suave but he has plenty of swagger too and remains persuasive.
In Saturday night’s cast, Lawrence Brownlee and Sarah Coburn were the Almaviva and Rosina. Both are products of Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program. They were gifted then, ever more so now. Quite a lot has been made about the long aria for Almaviva, “Cessa di piu resistere,” that comes at the end of the opera. It is rarely done because it is so technically challenging. In the Metropolitan Opera’s new production, staged by Bartlett Sher, Juan Diego Florez sang the aria brilliantly. No attempt was made to incorporate it into any stage action; rather it was presented as a concert aria, on a specially designed “passerelle,” an elevated gangway that extended from the apron of the stage over orchestra pit, past the conductor, to the other side. One can argue — and many did– that the aria, and its presentation, was too disruptive of the story, but for me the vocal brilliance and Florez’s charisma overrode all other consdierations. In Seattle Opera, Kazaras tried to incorporate some stage business into the aria. I think it was a good decision for all sorts of reasons. Brownlee also has a remarkable technique and he made the aria a display piece for his vocalism. He is not a natural actor but he was well coached by Kazaras. Besides his fluent technique and high notes that come easily to him, or so it would appear, he has a sweetness of sound that is beguiling. I wish the people who provided the costumes for him had paid more attention to what they were doing. Except for the first, which was elegant and slimming, the others were travesties on him. The second made him into a ice cream sunday and the last made him looked larger than necessary. Both were ill-fitting. His costume as Don Alonso made Brownlee look bizarre.
Nicholas Phan, on Sunday, does not have Brownlee’s technique. He cut and sliced and fudged when needed to get through all the notes Rossini so generously provided. But he has a handsome voice that he uses to good effect. There were no costume issues with him.
Coburn Saturday night was an attractive Rosina, slim-waisted and pretty. She does not have a lot of personality to make her character interesting. But her singing was absolutely fluent and clear and refreshing. In the Sunday cast was Kate Lindsey, a mezzo-soprano compared with Coburn’s lighter soprano. Rossini’s wrote the part for a mezzo but both vocal types have sung the role, although more sopranos than mezzos. This was deft casting for those destined to hear both casts. The comparison was fascinating. Lindsey is a naturally gifted actress who know that details give a characterization richness and life. She also has all the vocal attributes to make the role vocally satisfying. Her mezzo seems almost a soprano at times but then she dips down and one can hear the delicious dark sounds of her voice.
In smaller roles were the Patrick Carfizzi as Dr. Bartolo. What a delicious role, and Carfizzi made the most of it. Don Basilio is also a wonderful part and Burak Bilgili gave life and wild humor to the part. The production would not be as successful without the talent of these two men. Sally Wolf, who has had a long career at Seattle Opera, sang Berta with finesse and feeling. David S. Hogan, as Ambrogio, was funny.