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Opera Lafayette and the Other 'Barber'

Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Portrait of Giovanni Paisiello, 1791
(composer shown with score of his opera Nina on the clavichord)
Most listeners today can hear Mozart's Marriage of Figaro and Rossini's Barber of Seville and not think of Giovanni Paisiello's evergreen predecessor, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, in the background. That is, however, how nearly everyone heard those now much more popular works when they were premiered. Paisiello's music has faded almost completely from performance and remains mostly unrecorded, although over the years we have had reason to mention both another opera, Nina, and an oratorio, the Passione di Gesù Cristo. His most famous work, a quick-and-dirty adaptation of Beaumarchais's hit play Le Barbier de Séville (libretto by Giuseppe Petrosellini), made during a near-decade spent in the court of Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg, is still not available in a major recording, and a rather confused source editing situation remains to be sorted out by musicologists. So, bravo to Opera Lafayette for bringing this opera to the light of day, in a concert performance with some light staging, on Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

It did so in more or less the St. Petersburg version of the opera, with spoken dialogue instead of the recitatives added later when the composer was back in Italy. Since the Italian pronunciation of the singers was less than beautiful, the dialogue could have easily been spoken in English, allowing even more of the immediacy of the work -- many segments have been translated more or less directly from the Beaumarchais play -- to come through. Beaumarchais's opening scene, which showed Figaro working out the details of a serenade he was composing, is set ingeniously in Paisiello's score, with little recitative interjections interrupting the flow of the orchestral score -- a scene that Rossini's later version chose to excise, beginning instead with Almaviva's serenade to Rosina. Figaro's expressions of class conflict ("I thought myself all too happy to be forgotten by the powers that be, persuaded that a nobleman does well enough by us when he does us no harm," for example), not surprisingly, are mostly ironed out, so as not to offend the empress's ear. The jokes about writing opera peppering the libretto, an example of the composer and librettist poking fun at themselves, are icing on the cake.

The cast was a good assortment of strong local singers, including notable character tenor Robert Baker as Count Almaviva and baritone James Shaffran as a Figaro more bumbling than clever. The strongest singing came from bass-baritone Eugene Galvin as a nail-spitting Dr. Bartolo and Peter Becker as a dim-witted Basilio. Soprano Jennifer Casey Cabot, a singer on the rise, was a full-bodied Rosina, with only a vibrato perhaps just a notch too active susceptible to criticism. Her window aria, in dialogue with the pale flauto traverso, was one of the evening's highlights. Young artists Andrew Sauvageau (with whom the author has occasionally sung in choir) and William Bouvel hammed it up to hilarious effect as the yawning and sneezing servants, respectively. This scene is extended musically from Beaumarchais's characters La Jeunesse (who is very old and sneezes constantly) and L'Éveillé (who is young and stupid and always falling asleep -- the character names are obviously ironic).

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, ‘Positions 1956’ and ‘Barbiere di Siviglia’ (Washington Post, April 16)
Conductor Ryan Brown's position, standing in front of the first row of seats in the theater, occasionally made it difficult for some of his musicians, arrayed across the stage, to see him. This caused a few alignment issues all evening long, most noticeably with the percussionist, who was placed directly behind the platform where most of the action was staged. Paisiello's orchestration, while perhaps not masterful, offers many unusual combinations, especially his use of a pair of clarinets, generally in amorous settings. A particularly beautiful aria for Rosina is set with a fetching combination of horns, bassoon, and clarinet, and Basilio's calumny aria -- an important model for Rossini's version later -- had impressive thunder effects provided by drums. Nick Olcott's generally pleasing semi-staging -- minimal costumes and a couple set pieces -- was effective. The decision to place the musicians in and around the action is a little dangerous, with Shaffran tripping over the edge of the platform at one point and almost knocking into one of the violinists. At another point, Shaffran sat teetering on the top of a ladder, representing the high window of Bartolo's house, and one feared for the musicians just beneath him.

Opera Lafayette also announced its 2012-2013 season. The two complete operas to be performed will be the modern premiere of Félicien David's Lalla Rouhk (based on a taste of the work we had from the company in 2008, this will be well worth your while), in a production with an Indian dance company, and Charpentier's charming pastoral Actéon. There will also be a recital featuring French soprano Emmanuelle de Negri.

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