Monday, November 18, 2013

SFO's Barber a Cut Above

San Francisco Opera
Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”
Nov. 16, 2013

Some productions of “The Barber of Seville” are goofy; some are profoundly goofy. SFO’s new production is goofy and profound, thanks to the witty, often elegant touches of stage director Emilio Sagli.

The joyousness of Sagi’s vision shows itself immediately, when a flamenco troupe takes the stage mid-overture to carry off a bust of Rossini and pull out the white walls and wrought iron windowframes of the village square that form Llorens Corbella’s set. The set changes often during the performance, reflecting the ephemeral nature of love and life, and the delightful absurdity of Rossini’s opera.

Our Barber for the evening, Lucas Meacham, is one smooth devil. He begins the demanding “Largo al factotum” while riding circles on his bicycle wagon, and continues to nab flyers from the air and flip his hairbrushes as he sings to a group of admirers.

As if to one-up his barber in the category of suavity, Javier Camarena performs Count Almaviva’s first serenade, “Ecco, ridente in cielo” with stunning legato and a use of tonal coloration bordering on (gasp!) tenor coloratura. He goes even further in the second serenade, “Se il mio nome,” accompanying himself on guitar and even throwing in a passage of flamenco (to which Figaro utters a wry “Olé!”). I have never seen an Almaviva so dominate the stage, particularly in the strenuous final-scene combination of “Cessa di piú resistere” and the cabaletta “Ah il piú lieto,” which is cut from most productions.

Mezzo Isabel Leonard sings with a similar ease, performing “Una voce poco fa” and its cabaletta “Io sono docile” while applying rhythmic spray-bottle mistings to her flowers and using a pair of garden shears as castanets. She also showed great agility in the runs of “Contro un cor” in the Act Two music-lesson scene. Leonard makes an excellent straight-woman, getting the most from her expressive features.

All this smooth vocalizing produces a further payoff in Act Two, in the a capella sections of the lead trio’s ode to the ladder which will facilitate their escape. The “ping” of the overtones is spine-tingling. As is the laughter when the ladder turns up missing.

Andrea Silvestrelli, SFO’s bass-in-residence (allow me to make it official), has a terrific amount of fun with Don Basilio’s “La calunnia è un venticello,” singing of the “gentle zephyr” of a spreading rumor even as mysterious beings beneath the stage create artificial clouds using fans and sheets. At half of Silvestrelli’s size, Alessandro Corbelli makes a superb Doctor Bartolo, conjuring laughter from unexpected moments (his preposterous armchair-sleeping postures during the music lesson) and delivering the insanely rapid patter of “A un dottor della mia sorte” with lip-cramping elán. Mezzo Catherine Cook follows with an entertaining rendition of Berta’s “sorbet aria” (literally, an aria from a minor character meant to cleanse the palate and give the leads a rest), “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie,” a warning to old men chasing younger women.

Pepa Ojanguren’s costumes are divine: the Count’s cream-colored coat, Figaro’s striking brown suit, and especially Rosina’s brilliant yellow skirts in Act Two (lending color to an otherwise monochromatic setting). An Act Two rainstorm was accomplished with what appeared to be tiny bits of plastic, creating an enchanting effect. Conductor Giuseppe Finzi led the orchestra in an ebullient, assured performance. The production operated in an amorphous time-frame, leading to unusual phenomena like Bartolo’s exercycle and the Count and Rosina departing the game show-like finale in a cherry-red ’56 Jaguar XK-SS convertible, on loan from Price Family Dealerships of Marin.

Through Dec. 1, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Alternating casts. $23-$385,, 415/864-3330.

Images: Isabel Leonard (Rosina) and Javier Camarena (Count Almaviva). Lucas Meachem (Figaro). The set from Act One. Javier Camarena (Count Almaviva) and Alessandro Corbelli (Doctor Bartolo). Photos ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of the novels Operaville and Gabriella’s Voice and a 25-year opera critic.

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