Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Dr. Batolo on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Opera Theatre's "Barber of Seville"

Jonathan Beyer as Figaro
Photo: Ken Howard
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What: Rossini's The Barber of Seville
Where: Opera Theatre of St. Louis
When: Through June 27, 2015

Stage director Michael Shell, conductor Ryan McAdams, and the cast of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' "Barber of Seville" can all congratulate themselves on a job well done. Kelley Rourke's translation/adaptation of the original libretto and Mr. Shell's visual concepts take a few liberties as they move the action up to (roughly) the mid-1960s, but I felt that none of them violated the intentions of either the original opera or, for that matter, the Beaumarchais play that started it all. The result it a loopy, slightly surreal, and highly engaging take this comic opera classic.

Emily Fons as Rosina and
Dale Travis as Dr. Bartolo
Photo: Ken Howard
In an email interview with me prior to the opening, Mr. Shell—who originally created this production for Opera Philadelphia last fall—said that he set out to create a "Barber" that was "vibrant, energetic, and very Spanish". He took as his point of departure the animated and colorful films of Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, which, as he writes in his director's notes in the program, "have all the elements of a Rossini opera. Almodóvar is brilliant at walking the line between dramatic comedy and melodramatic absurdity. His films, rich with a vintage feel, are also deeply embedded in Spain and Spanish culture."

The updated bits are always funny and sometimes inspired. When, for example, Almaviva enters Bartolo's house in Act II disguised as a singing teacher so he can flirt with Rosina, he does so with a sitar and Yoga poses. Rosina's music master Don Basiliso becomes a smarmy nightclub singer, complete with a mic and an absurd Salvador Dali mustache. And the officer of the watch and guards who enter at the height of the comic chaos at the end of Act I are nothing short of living Warner Brothers cartoons, with wacky choreography courtesy of the ever-reliable Seán Curran.

And then there's the thunderstorm sequence in Act II that Rossini inserted to imply the passage of time between the scene in which Rosina, Figaro, and Almaviva plot Rosina's escape and the actual escape itself. Usually, the stage is bare. In this case, it's filled with the nightmare Bartolo has after downing one too many drinks from his bar. Dancing roosters figure prominently.

Shoko Kambara's candy-colored sets and Amanda Seymour's gaudy costumes add to the vivid cinematic imagery.

Christopher Tiesi as Almavivia, Emily Fons as
Rosina, and Jonathan Beyer as Figaro
Photo: Ken Howard
So, yes, there's plenty of action in this "Barber." And while some of it is only tangentially connected to the story, it's never allowed to draw attention from the singers and it always serves the comedy well. Even when, as in the Act I finale, there's a lot of movement going on, it's kept mostly upstage, so it's easy to keep the focus on the principals. This is a production that respects the intelligence of its audience and doesn't assume that we need to be constantly distracted in order to be entertained.

With the exception of bass-baritone Dale Travis as Bartolo, this cast is entirely new to Opera Theatre. It's always a pleasure to see some new faces on the stage, especially when they're this good.

Baritone Jonathan Beyer is Figaro, the versatile fixer who can arrange an assignation as easily as he can shave your beard. Mr. Beyer created this role in the Opera Philadelphia production, and he clearly couldn't be more comfortable in it. He's a tall, commanding comic presence on the stage with a versatile voice that's more than up to Rossini's demands. His "Largo al factotum" was gracefully done, and without the excessive ornamentation that some singers are prone to give it.

Christopher Tiesi as Almavivia
Jonathan Beyer as Figaro
Photo: Ken Howard
Christopher Tiesi is the lovelorn Almaviva, with a ringing tenor and a feel for comedy that makes him an ideal foil for Mr. Beyer's Figaro. The fact that he's so much shorter than Figaro also creates some amusing "Mutt and Jeff" images in their scenes together.

Bass-baritone Dale Travis is another big actor with an equally large voice, and it serves him well as the comically pompous Bartolo. He delvers Rossini's rapid patter songs with ease and impressively precise diction. South Korean bass-baritone Jeongcheol Cha rounds out the principal male cast as the wily (if ineffectual) Basilio. His "gossip" aria "La calunnia è un venticello" was a first-act highlight.

Mezzo-soprano Emily Fons is Rosina. The role was originally written for a contralto, but sopranos and mezzos have done well with it over the years, and Ms. Fons sounded entirely comfortable with it, giving us an "Una voce poco fa" in Act I that was both beautifully sung and hilariously in character. Soprano Eliza Johnson only has one short aria ("l vecchiotto cerca moglie" in Act II) as the maid Berta, but she makes it a charming little character bit.

There are fine performances as well from baritone Benjamin Taylor as Almaviva's friend Fiorello, baritone Jonathan McCullough as the increasingly rattled Officer at the end of Act I, tenor Todd Barnhill as the Notary, and tenor Geoffrey Agpalo as the servant Ambrogio.

Christoper Tiesi as Almaviva
Emily Fons as Rosina, and
Jonathan Beyer as Figaro
Photo: Ken Howard
Down in the orchestra pit, conductor Ryan McAdams does well by Rossini's infectious score, beginning with a performance of the overture that was both rousing and nuanced. There were a few moments on opening night when the orchestra and the singers sounded not entirely in synch, but on the whole it all came together splendidly.

The projected English text was a bit spotty on opening night, but given how clearly everyone in this cast enunciates I didn't find that to be an issue. The bottom line is that the things that really matter all work very well in this production, making it a lively and enjoyable opener for OTSL's 40th anniversary season.

The Opera Theatre of St. Louis production of Rossini's "Barber of Seville" continues through June 27 in rotating repertory with three other operas at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. The opera is sung in English with projected English text. For ticket information: experienceopera.org.

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