by Alice Bloch -
SGN A&E Writer
THE BARBER OF SEVILLE
MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
October 15 (Sunday Matinee cast)
(Same cast 10/18, 10/21 & 10/28)
'Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.' That adage of the theater applies doubly to comic opera, which must be fast-paced and funny to audiences in many cultures and in many eras, as well as being musically satisfying. If the opera is a familiar one, there's the extra challenge of finding a fresh approach and surprising the audience at every turn.
The Barber of Seville is by far the most familiar comic opera, but stage director Lindy Hume and her team have come up with many delightful surprises for this co-production of Seattle Opera, Opera Queensland, and New Zealand Opera. A skilled cast and orchestra, conducted by Giacomo Sagripanti, definitely proved themselves up to the work's musical and dramatic challenges in the performance I attended.
The barber of Seville is Figaro, of course, and his entrance aria in Act 1 is the most famous part of the opera. In most productions, Figaro swaggers onto the stage from the wings, but in this production, there is a loud knocking on one of the doors into the theater, and the stage manager finally opens it, admits Figaro, and gives him a glass of water. He begins singing as he moves through the audience, and by the time he reaches the stage, we are all charmed. In the Sunday matinee performance I attended, Will Liverman played Figaro with glee and finesse, and filled the hall with his big baritone voice. It was impossible not to smile when he was onstage.
Although Figaro is the title character, he is only peripherally involved in the plot. Young, feisty Rosina is being imprisoned in the home of her guardian, Dr. Bartolo, who intends to marry her for her inheritance. Count Almaviva has fallen in love with her and adopts a series of ridiculous disguises to gain entry to the household and free her with Figaro's help. The role of Rosina is generally given to a mezzo-soprano, but in this production, sopranos play the role in both casts. In the Sunday matinee, Sofia Fomina convinced me that this was a wise choice, for her bright, high voice made the character seem suitably youthful and optimistic. She did a great job of portraying the perky, smart heroine, and negotiated the difficult coloratura passages deftly. As Count Almaviva, Andrew Owens was cute as a button and sang beautifully, but his tenor voice wasn't quite powerful enough; I could hear him well only when he was turned in my direction. Bass Kevin Glavin's strong, agile voice and excellent comic timing made for a splendid performance as the odious but buffoonish Dr. Bartolo.
Dr. Bartolo's servants Ambrogio and Berta appear in all productions of this opera, but in this production, their roles are much more prominent than usual. They are almost constantly onstage and are given their own subplot. In the silent role of Ambrogio, Marc Kenison (AKA burlesque star Waxie Moon) showed off his tremendous skill at physical comedy, at one point hanging from a chandelier by one ankle and waving his other limbs about. Mezzo-soprano Margaret Gawrysiak's face displayed Berta's resentments and hopes while she dusted and vacuumed, and she gave an unusually spirited performance of Berta's aria.
The only disappointment was the singing of Daniel Sumegi as Don Basilio, the gossipy music master. Sumegi sounded as though he had gravy stuck in his throat, and his sluggish attempts at patter singing were painful to hear.
Production designer Tracy Grant Lord and lighting designer Matthew Marshall provided visual delights galore. The set of many colorful doors and windows was perfect for the madcap comedy, and the vivid lighting enhanced moments of hilarity. The stylish, attractive costumes spanned centuries, from the time of Rossini 200 years ago (for Ambrogio, Bartolo, and Basilio) to the mid-twentieth century (Berta) to today (Rosina, Almaviva, Figaro, and the chorus). Bartolo's Elvis wig and Almaviva's Elton John glasses elicited big laughs.
Choreographer Daniel Pelzig created some wonderful dance numbers, climaxing with a fabulous fandango in the final scene. For the fandango, cast and chorus were costumed in red, except for Ambrogio and Berta, who were pretty in pink.
Jonathan Dean always excels at creating the English captions, but this time he outdid himself. The captions were colloquial and clever throughout. Bravo!
The orchestra and chorus sounded terrific, and Michael Partington added to the Spanish atmosphere by playing guitar onstage very well indeed.
Many of the scenes of Barber are pretty silly, and yet the opera gives us plenty to think about by highlighting and ridiculing the hierarchies of class, age, and sex. Wealth is presented as an advantage to the Count, who is able to foil Bartolo and get the girl by dispensing bags of gold to Figaro, policemen, and soldiers; but Rosina's wealth does her no good and is actually the reason Bartolo wants to force her to marry him. However, this opera treats social issues with a light touch, and Seattle Opera's production is bound to lift your mood. Isn't that what we all need to get through these grim, scary times?
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