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Ionarts-at-Large: Rossini in San Francisco

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from out West.

Photo assumed courtesy San Francisco Opera, very possibly © Cory Weaver.

On November 13th, the San Francisco Opera offered a big valentine to Gioachino Rossini, who was present on stage either in the form of a giant six-foot tall bust at the opening, or as a bas relief on the upper wall, for the remainder of a scintillating performance of The Barber of Seville. At the appearance of the bust, I suspected that this production, which comes from the Lithuanian National Opera (inspired by Emilio Sagi’s production for the Teatro Real), might prove to be too self-conscious, which is fatal for comedy, but it was not—except in a few minor instances. In fact, so infused with fun was this staging that it made the opera seem 200 years young.

This was made possible by the splendid performances all around. At one point, Rosina sings of someone possessing “high spirit and beauty.” These qualities exactly define mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, who was making her San Francisco Opera debut in the rôle. She sparkled. Her performance had tremendous verve. There is an added level of enjoyment when someone does what they do as well as she did. Artistry at such a high level, unimpeded by physical or technical limitations with everything going directly into the expression of the character, is a joy to behold and a pleasure to hear.

The fact that one could even take notice of anyone around her when she was on stage is a measure of how good the rest of the cast was. The rôle of Count Almaviva requires maximum energy and an extraordinary level of vocal dexterity. Mexican tenor Janvier Camarena, also making his

San Francisco debut, exhibited both. Not with the totally carefree manner of Mlle. Leonard, but then he was also obliged to assume several false identities in order to insinuate himself into Rosina’s household. This he did very well, with superb comedic timing. His nemesis, Rosina’s guardian, Doctor Bartolo, was sung by Italian bass-baritone Alessandro Corbelli, who was every bit as curmudgeonly as he should have been. Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli was a standout as Don Basilio. Not only was he very funny but his voice is so big that it made the opera house seem small indeed. He could be heard in a whisper. What an instrument! It was also amusing to see this huge man physically next to Corbelli’s diminutive Doctor Bartolo; they made for a good Laurel and Hardy pair.

available at Amazon
G.Rossini, Il barbiere di Siviglia,
H.Prey, T.Berganza et al.
LSO / C.Abbado

As Figaro, baritone Lucas Meachem bore an uncanny physical resemblance to a young Vincent Price. He either chose or was directed to play his role in a rather laid-back manner. He did that well, but at times seemed too at ease. Vocally, he had sufficient power when needed except at the beginning, when he was swamped in the midrange by the orchestra.

Catherine Cook as Berta and Adler Fellow A.J. Glueckert as Ambrogio played their scenes and sang their big duet together with panache and character. However, it was some of the stage business assigned to Berta that exposed a few minor flaws.

All of the humor should be kept within this comic opera—not outside of it. Before Act 2 begins, Berta is on our side of the proscenium cleaning the curtain for some reason. Then, for a little physical humor, she makes as if to lift the huge and immensely heavy curtain herself—and succeeds! Of course, there are some winks and nudges—to let the audience know that she knows this is funny. For an actor or a singer to let the audience in on it—that they, the actor or singer, knows this is an illusion hurts the illusion. The great fun of a P.G. Wodehouse novel or of this masterpiece is that the characters in it don’t think it’s funny. It’s their situation that is funny, and only we should be able to see that from the outside. If they see it, it deflates. I would not want to make too much of this because the offenses were few. But another one of them was having the happy couple, Rosina and Count Almaviva, drive off at the end in a bright red, classic Jaguar XK-SS convertible. Since this jarring anachronism was entirely outside the early 19th-century context of most of the rest of the production, it too put the outside on the inside of the opera where it does not belong. In other words: Emilio Sagi (or his revivalists) went for the cheap laugh.

The set, placed on a raked stage at a sharp angle, presented a street in Seville with whitewashed walls and attractive ironwork in the windows and portals. The blanched appearance made any daubs of color stand out—exactly as they do in such streets in southern Spain. The director had fun adding color as the opera progressed until, at the final curtain, the stage was a riot of color. The costumes followed the same line of progression—especially Rosina’s which grew ever more colorful with every change.

Resident conductor Giuseppe Finzi led the orchestra and singers in this spirited engagement. In all, it made for one of the most enjoyable opera evenings that I’ve experienced.

The Barber of Seville plays through Sunday, December 1.

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