BWW Review: Austin Opera Dazzles in THE BARBER OF SEVILLE
This Spring, Austin Opera is presenting one of Gioachino Rossini's most well-loved works, THE BARBER OF SEVILLE, or The Futile Precaution. Judging from the full house (on a Thursday night, no less) this production has been highly anticipated this season by Austin audiences. Rossini's Barber has proven to be one of the greatest masterpieces of comedy within music, and has been described as the opera buffa of all "opere buffe". Even after two hundred years, it remains a popular work.
Based on Pierre Beaumarchais's French comedy Le Barbier de Séville of 1775, and with Italian libretto by Cesare Sterbini, Rossini's two-act opera buffa has the effect of a glass of champagne; its light and effervescent story line contains all mirth and no matter, and its scenes are filled with vocal fireworks that sparkle with endless runs and coloratura. And though the brilliant vocal passages are meant to sound flawless and easy, make no mistake: it takes true virtuosic skill for a performer to successfully execute the Rossini style with clockwork-like precision.
Rossini's opera retells the events of the first of the three plays by Beaumarchais that revolve around a charming and enterprising character named Figaro. (Mozart's opera Le nozze di Figaro, composed 30 years earlier in 1786, is based on the sequel of the Beaumarchais trilogy.) The opera begins with the all-too-familiar, famous overture, which was actually recycled from two earlier Rossini operas, Aureliano in Palmira and Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra and contains none of the thematic material in Il Barbiere di Siviglia itself.
Once the curtain rises, director Alain Gauthier takes his audience to a square of 18th century Siviglia, just outside of the stately home of Dr. Bartolo. A group of male musicians appear, led by the wealthy (and disguised) Count Almaviva, who intends to serenade the lovely young ward of Bartolo, as a poor student named "Lindoro." Playing the role of Count Almaviva, tenor Juan José de Léon wins the evening. From the moment he begins his opening aria, "Se il mio nome saper", the entire audience has complete confidence in this young tenor's ability to tackle the difficult passages with ease and brilliance. Keep your eye on this young man-I have a feeling that we will be hearing much more from him in the future.
Figaro, the barber and general factotum of the town, dances in, singing the famous patter air, "Largo al factotum della città" (Room for the city's factotum). In the beloved role of Figaro, baritone Troy Cook dazzles with wit and charm, and despite a few minor timing issues toward the end of this aria, Cook proves to be one of the true highlights of the evening. His understanding of the quick comedic timing and bravado of his character is matched by his vocal skill. Cook performs all of his moments with freshness, and he is a joy to watch.
Almaviva asks Figaro for help to win the love of Rosina, and the story unfolds. Because Dr. Bartolo intends to marry his young ward, and thus take control of her inheritance, he keeps the beautiful maiden under lock and key. Patrick Carfizzi takes on the role of the poor old misguided Dr. Bartolo, who is bound and determined not to be taken for a fool, but unintentionally brings about his own fate. Carfizzi is wonderful in this comic role, and despite occasional lack of projection against the orchestra, he displays true speed and vocal agility in his Act I aria, "A un dottor della mia sorte." This is one of my favorite moments, and Carfizzi magnificently tackles the outrageous speed of the patter with ease.
Inside Dr. Bartolo's house, Rosina, clearly smitten with "Lindoro's" song, sings her famous aria, "Una voce poco fa", about the voice she has just heard in the street below her balcony window. In the legendary role of Rosina, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera has many fine moments and a deep richness within her caramel-colored timbre, but at times she simply did not have the soprano overtones that mezzos in this particular role usually possess to vocally carry over the orchestra. And at times, her depiction of Rosina would lean a bit too much in the direction of a "spoiled child" instead of the fearless, brave young lady. I found myself wishing that the director would have given her different choices, as this approach can be a bit antiquated for the modern stage. But there were certainly standout moments in this production. In my favorite duet of Act II, "Contro un cor che accende amore," in which Almaviva is disguised as a substitute music teacher of Don Basilio, both Rivera and de Léon have their best moments of chemistry and comedy, and Gauthier skillfully fashioned the staging around the most comedic elements of the composition, as well.
In the role of Don Basilio, Jamie Offenbach certainly possessed the physicality to portray the scheming music master as a grotesque, over-the-top, comic creature. But what really took me by surprise was a bit of a costuming issue, as I was amazed at how much this production's Don Basilio resembled alternative rock performer, Marilyn Manson. Perhaps it was the wig, coupled with the pale make-up and tall, thin stature that Mr. Offenbach possesses, but it was quite hard to get this image out of my mind. Offenbach certainly chose to go with a very presentational style, and there were a few awkward moments of direction within his aria "La calunnia è un venticello".
Finally, mezzo-soprano Lisa Alexander shines in the role of Berta. Her scene-stealing, wonderfully realistic timing of Dr. Bartolo's chain-smoking housemaid, and her cheeky performance of her aria, "Il vecchiotto cerca moglie" garnered Ms. Alexander applause during curtain call. Without a doubt, Figaro, Almaviva, Bartolo and Berta seemed a bit more realistic and representational with their comedic timing and choices, whereas Rosina and Don Basilio were a bit more presentational and over-the-top.
Overall, THE BARBER OF SEVILLE is a beautiful, spirited production, and director Alain Gauthier along with principal conductor Richard Buckley have created a beautiful piece for Austin audiences. With only one weekend remaining, be sure to catch Austin Opera's final performance of THE BARBER OF SEVILLE on Sunday, May 1st...and catch Count Almaviva and Rosina before they elope for good!
THE BARBER OF SEVILLE will be playing now through Sunday, May 1st at 701 W Riverside Dr, Austin, TX 78704. Performances are Saturday April 23th at 7:30PM, Thursday April 28th at 7:30PM, and Sunday May 1st at 3:00PM. Tickets are $25-$200. For tickets and information, please visit http://austinopera.org/event/barberofseville/ .