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Review: Splendid Voices Fill Rossini's BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA at Union Avenue Opera

The St. Louis Company Puts This Classic Comic Opera under the Big Top

Review: Splendid Voices Fill Rossini's BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA at Union Avenue Opera
Photo: Ron Lindsey

I've always seen Opera as the Olympics of the vocal world: All those truly amazing things that singers do on stage! Well, last night I saw Union Avenue Opera's production of BARBER OF SEVILLE--and I realized that such singers surely qualify as circus performers too.

The doughty little opera company emerged out of the chrysalis of pandemic isolation to fledge its bright wings in a new venue--the huge Big Top, home to St. Louis' Circus Flora. The evening was filled with Bel Canto flips and leaps worthy of the finest aerialist--and of "circus-tempo" patter singing that dazzled like the best of all jugglers.

Review: Splendid Voices Fill Rossini's BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA at Union Avenue Opera
Photo: Ron Lindsey

Giacchino Rossini's BARBER OF SEVILLE originally appeared in 1816, and it has ever since been one of the world's most popular comic operas. At its center is Figaro, the clever and enterprising barber and factotum who, primed with enough gold, can arrange anything. The plot, like the character, is taken from a play by Beaumarchais--but it is a plot that goes way, way back to the Greeks and beyond: a clever servant foiling the gruff old guardian to permit young love to take its course. Our Figaro here is, of course, that same character whom we see getting married in Mozart's famous opera. He's that same Figaro whom Bugs Bunny endeared to several generations of cartoon enthusiasts.

Founder and Artistic Director Scott Schoonover has a long habit of finding remarkable voices for his productions, but he struck pure gold in Robert Mellon, who sings Figaro. I was impressed with Mellon's vocal and comic gifts in a supporting role at Opera Theatre of St. Louis a few years ago. But here, as Figaro, he has the opportunity to let those gifts flourish.

Review: Splendid Voices Fill Rossini's BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA at Union Avenue Opera
Photo: Ron Lindsey

Now a circus tent, with its vast overhead space, simply dares a singer to "fill the hall", but Mellon easily does just that. His rich and powerful baritone is equal to all challenges. But he also has immense skills as an actor. Such utter investment, such quick lively energy, such imagination! His every moment is full of invention. With flashing eyes and a roguish moustache he makes it all seem so natural. A glorious, lovely self-confidence pervades his performance.

And he's not alone! Count Almaviva, Figaro's client in this romantic enterprise, is beautifully sung by Pedro Barbosa. His first aria, an aubade, displays the smooth and graceful qualities of his voice-a lovely match to the "smiling sky, the lovely dawn" alluded to in the lyric. As an actor he maintains the elegance appropriate to the Count's position in society--throughout his comic disguises.

The lovely Rosina is sung by Janara Kellerman. She's covered some territory since last I saw her (singing the mother in Britten's ALBERT HERRING here at Union Avenue). She's been singing Carmen around the country and is soon to take on the famous solo role in LA VOIX HUMAINE. She has an attractive vocal warmth and is quite adept at those gravity defying bel canto tricks.

Review: Splendid Voices Fill Rossini's BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA at Union Avenue Opera
Photo: Ron Lindsey

Dr. Bartolo, the gruff old guardian, is sung by one of my favorite opera comics-Andy Papas. This buffo baritone charmed us in UAO's PIRATES OF PENZANCE. Here, in "A un dottor della mia sorte," he gets to engage in some prestissimo patter that makes the "Modern Major General" seem almost lento. Short and rotund, Papas is capable of the spriteliest scamper and always seems full of mischief.

Isaiah Musik-Ayala brings a slightly elegant comic wickedness to the role of Don Basilio, Rosina's music teacher. His aria in praise of slander is quite delicious.

Supporting roles are packed with solid talent. Erin Haupt and Jordan Wolk bring fine voices and deft comedy to (respectively) Berta, Bartolo's very sneezy housekeeper, and Ambrosio, his very sleepy servant. Benjamin Worley sings the count's servant, Fiorello. Early on Worley stamps this show as comedy when he wackily leads a small "orchestra" (the chorus). Michael Lowe book-ends that function when he sings the leader of "la Forza" (the cops!) at the very end. (And very Keystone Kops they are!)

The stage is set on one side of the Big Top. A full orchestra (nineteen pieces) is placed on-stage behind the singers. With a singing cast of fourteen (and some furniture) that leaves little elbow-room on stage. But Director John Truitt gracefully manages everything so as to give us not a "concert version" but a fully staged BARBIERE. I did rather miss the fine scenic things that often appear at Union Avenue, but with terrific costumes by Teresa Doggett, with well-chosen properties by Katie Orr, and with Patrick Huber's lighting mastery apparent even in this unusual venue; nevertheless, it all was most satisfying.

Conductor Stephen Hargreaves led his orchestra and singers into beauty and balance in what surely must have been an acoustically foreign setting.

Audience alert: It's summer in Saint Louis! The Big Top has a pleasant air-flow but no air conditioning. Shorts are recommended!

From This Author - Steve Callahan

A native Kansan I have a BA (Math and Theatre) and MA (Theatre). I was working on a PhD in Theatre when IBM sniffed my math background and lured me away with money enough to feed my (then two) children.... (read more about this author)

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