Review: THE BARBER OF SEVILLE at Opera Theatre Of St. Louis

Rossini's "Barber" bangs open the door to OTSL's festival season.

By: May. 28, 2024
Review: THE BARBER OF SEVILLE at Opera Theatre Of St. Louis
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Spring fever?  If you’ve been made a bit dozy by these warm spring days the new production at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis will, with a bang, hoist you wide awake in all your senses.  Rossini’s The Barber of Seville opened Saturday to an audience that packed the Loretto-Hilton theatre to the rafters.   

The folks at OTSL have maintained their good graces with the Man Up There:  the predicted rain-storm held off until everyone had gotten safely home after the show.  So there was plenty of gourmet picnicking in the lovely gardens around the theater before the performance—and a celebratory champagne gala with the cast after the show.

Stage Director Eric Sean Fogel chooses to set this 1816 opera in the 1930’s, before the Spanish Civil War.  This was an era when the art world had been disoriented by the shocking works of (among others) Spanish artists Picasso, Miro, Gris, and the young Dali.  (Picasso had moved on to his Neo-classical period, but his cubist influence was still strong.)  Thus, Mr. Fogel places the work in an era where art was struggling to shake off the chains of tradition—just as Rossini had been doing musically in 1816.  Just as Beaumarchais (upon whose play this opera is based) had been attempting, politically, in 1773.

It's an ancient plot.  Young lovers striving, with the aid of a Clever Servant, to foil the gruff old guardian and permit young love to take its course.  Now Almaviva is a count, but he wants to win Rosina’s love for himself, not for his wealth.  So, disguised as a poor student he serenades her.  But Rosina is locked away by her guardian, Bartolo, who plans to marry her himself.  The ensuing courtship and conniving is a circus-tempo madcap comedy replete with sudden surprises and ludicrous disguises.  It’s orchestrated by that very clever barber, Figaro.

The set, by Andrew Boyce, seems simple at first glance:  a large back wall the color of sunny sand, a narrow balcony up right, a couple of potted palms.   But wait!  What’s with that huge neon-crimson kiss high on the wall?  Ditto on the floor?  Furniture and some props are pervasively “Playboy pink”.  A sofa in the shape of a vivid pink fat kiss appears.  There’s a pink guitar.  A pink upright piano—twenty feet long—is brought on for the music lesson. 

Every now and again windows or doors will pop open somewhere in that wall to reveal large close-ups of classical nude sketches—a torso’s lower back, various limbs and curves, close-cropped.  From time to time a great gauzy curtain is drawn across the wall; it bears a hugely magnified woman’s eye—richly mascaraed like Theda Bara or Betty Boop—and with one crystal tear-drop.    

Lighting by Marcus Doshi keeps everything bright, colorful and lively.

So, visually, it’s a giant leap away from realism to … surrealism?  fantasy?  cartoon?

Costumes, by Linly Saunders, enthusiastically follow suit.  Much of the clothing follows a hint of the shapes of 1930’s Spanish style:  the women’s dresses, the uniforms of the police brigade, the high-waisted rather hippy military pants (that suggest Franco).  But the colors!  Wow!  In Figaro’s barber-shop scene, to display his art of creating beauty,  he spins a black-clad lady client away from him, unwinding and rewinding her skirt to reveal brilliant rainbow colors. Similar instants transform RosinReview: THE BARBER OF SEVILLE at Opera Theatre Of St. Louis a and Almaviva from normal eloping-wear to utter glitz and gypsy colors.  But Ms. Saunders strikes a real coup de couture in one of Almaviva’s disguises—a huge balloon of purple-and-pink checked pantaloons with a neatly-tailored skirted jacket.   It’s a wild mockery of those 17th Century “Spanish slops”—which were mocked by contemporaries (e.g. Ben Jonson) even when they were the height of foppish fashion.

So, visually the show mocks (or celebrates) either the avant-garde art of the 30’s—or the cartoon world where Bugs Bunny introduced all of us to Figaro.

(And yes, the vivid wacky visuals do distract a bit from the wonderful music.)

But ah, such music!  That brilliant, vigorous overture (which Rossini stole from himself) opens with a dramatic loud “Ta-da!”, then with quiet stealth creeps up the scale like a cartoon Tom tip-toeing up on a sleeping Jerry.   At OTSL that initial “Ta-da” seems a little timid, not poundingly dramatic as I’d expected.  But in a moment conductor Jonathan Brandani and those marvelous musicians from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra win me over.  The acoustics at OTSL are superb.  The orchestra is lucid.  You can hear every subtlety of timbre, the horse-hair touching the string, the immediacy of those double reeds.  And the audience is wondrously silent—as if holding its breath.  There are many little solo cameos in the overture, and each is brilliant.

Rossini’s contemporaries called him “Signor Crescendo”, and he was a master at it.   Maestro Brandani shows a gorgeous control of dynamics, beautifully supporting the comic excitement.  But Rossini liked accelerando, too.  The tempo often approaches light-speed in those impossible patter songs.

Justin Austin brings vast charm and brio to the role of Figaro.   A beautiful young man, he is physical grace incarnate.  This Figaro’s smile dazzles, and he expresses a delightfully justified high opinion of himself—all in a lovely bold baritone voice.

Andrew  Morstein as Almaviva and Hongni Wu as Rosina are quite charming, confident  young lovers.  Both bring beautiful voices and fine comic senses to the roles.

Dr. Bartolo is sung by bass-baritone Nathan Stark, who gives us wonderful fits of frustration.  He can sing gloriously even as Figaro covers his entire face and head with shaving lather. 

To me the most outstanding voice of the evening is that of Patrick Carfizzi, who sings Don Basilio.   What pure clarity, what richness of tone.  How easily he fills the hall.  His “Scandal” (La Calunnia) aria is perfection indeed.

Other excellent work is done by Chase Sanders as Berta and David Wolfe as Fiorello.  Jared Werlein is vocally commanding as the Police Captain.

Rossini’s The Barber of Seville continues at Opera Theatre of St. Louis through June 29.

(Photos by Eric Woolsey)


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