Monday, February 14, 2011

Opera San Jose's "Barber"

Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Opera San Jose
February 12, 2011

By Michael J. Vaughn

Opera Santa Barbara artistic director Jose Maria Condemi took some time out to unleash his (Groucho) Marxist talents on the Barber, filling every available quarter-rest with comic anarchy: the triangle gag, the bad mustache gag, the Bugs Bunny carrot gag, the upside-down book gag, the zone defense gag, the inexplicable apple gag, and especially the singing-from-the-diaphragm gag. Just to name a few.

Oddly, this fenetic evening had a bit of a slow start. Bryan Nies and the orchestra gave a lackluster reading of the overture, though they certainly made up for it later. Krassen Karagiozov offered a solid account of the Largo Factotum, but I’m going to be insanely demanding and ask him for ten percent more energy. Overall, however, the baritone’s performance was a fine example of going with your strengths. His open expression and curly-forelock wig give him a whimsical Danny Kaye aura, so he performed the part with more playfulness and less craftiness than most.

The production brings out the comic potential of Count Almaviva, who enters as an ingenue and soon turns to daffy hijinks. Tenor Michael Dailey took the physical flair he showed in last season’s Cosi and turned up the volume. His drunken soldier brought flashbacks of Richard Pryor’s ‘70s wino routines, and the Liberace arm movements behind the harpsichord were priceless. His musical highlight came in the haunting, high passages of the guitar serenade, “Se il mio nome.”

Betany Coffland’s turn as Rosina – together with last season’s Cenerentola – should confirm her genius in the special discipline of bel canto mezzo. Her performance of “Io sono docile” was astoundingly agile - and also funny. She rolled an r at her snoopy housemaid as if it were a dagger. She also brought out the easily overlooked beauty of the music-lesson rondo (even when it’s a joke, Rossini’s music is divine). Theatrically, Coffland gave the role an extra measure of feistiness, a welcome choice.

Bass Silas Elash brought his velvet foghorn to a Dr. Bartolo who’s got a bit of a vicious streak himself, and delivered the intimidating passages of patter with the ease of an auctioneer. (When the rest of the principals joined in at the Act I finale, it was like an argument between several machine guns.) Bass-baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala shone with Basilio’s delicious Scandal Aria (“La calunnia e un venticello”). And mezzo Tori Grayum did an excellent job with the opera’s thesis aria, “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie,” performing a pipe-smoking housemaid Berta in the finest Charlize Theron playing-ugly-for-the-Oscar tradition.

Matthew Antaky’s sets display a superb sense of detail. The Tuscan interior would transfer quite readily to many of the houses being built in California. The production’s costumery is quite dashing, particularly Rosina’s dress and the off-shoulder capes of Almaviva and Figaro (Alyssa Oania, original designs by Cathleen Edwards). Andrew Whitfield’s chorus added much to the liveliness, particularly in the aforementioned Act I finale.

Oh, and also the Harlem Globetrotters’ confetti-in-a-bucket gag. And the tongue gag. And the sneezing-in-the-hand gag.

Through February 27, California Theatre, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. $51-$101, 408/437-4450, Alternating casts.

Image: Betany Coffland as Rosina, Silas Elash as Dr. Bartolo. Photo by Pat Kirk.

Michael J. Vaughn is author of the novel Operaville, with a companion CD by soprano Barbara Divis, available at

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