BWW Review: THE BARBER OF SEVILLE at Lyric Opera Of Kansas City
Lyric Opera's production of "The Barber of Seville" or "The Useless Precaution" by Rossini opened Saturday evening at the Kauffman Center in the first of four performances. As is usual for the Lyric, this "Barber" is slyly updated from the original 1816 version first performed in Rome.
Figaro, the "Barber," is the leading character from a trilogy of French plays by Pierre Beaumarchais in the 1770s that inspired a number of operas by Rossini, Mozart, Giovanni Paisiello, and Francesco Moriacchi. These are mainly comedies of manners. In Grand Opera terms, it is called opera boffa.
Figaro (Baritone-Jarrett Ott) is Seville's "Michael Cohen" of his day. He is, in addition to being a barber, physician, pharmacist, bon vivant, man about town, a former member of the king's court, a rogue, and a fixer. He is the irrepressible and always likeable guy you approach if you need something done.
In the "Barber of Seville" a Spanish nobleman named Count Almaviva (here played by tenor - Jack Swanson) falls hopelessly in love with a beautiful woman named Rosina (Mezzo-Soprano Cassandra Zoe Velasco). Although he has never met this woman, he is terrified that she is after his money so, logically enough, he assumes the identity of a poor student named Lindoro. If she loves Lindoro, then she loves him for himself rather than for his money.
Anyway, Almaviva (Lindoro) approaches Figaro about how to sweep Rosina off her feet. Almaviva is acquainted with Figaro from his time at the Spanish court.
Almaviva has already hired a semi-marachi band with woodwinds, violins, guitars, and silenced percussion to serenade the lovely lady, but that hasn't worked out too well. The next step is to consult Figaro.
Figaro informs Almaviva (Lindoro) that the beautiful Rosina is the ward of a rich optometrist named Dr. Bartolo (Baritone - Matthew Burns). Bartolo keeps Rosina locked away in her room except when she is serving as his receptionist. It turns out that the middle-aged Bartolo has carnal designs on his ward and that she has a considerable dowry that goes along with her hand in marriage. He waits only for Rosina to attain marrying age.
Oddly, this is also one of the premises behind 1847s "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street" and the Stephen Sondheim musical to follow.
Back to Figaro and Almaviva (Lindoro) who are scheming about how to get to Rosina. By this time, Rosina is aware of the man she knows as Lindoro, but who is really Almaviva and she has fallen deeply in love with the guy's looks. Figaro suggests that Lindoro should assume the additional false identity of a drunken soldier and present Dr. Bartolo with orders that require the optometrist to quarter him in his house. Figaro will obtain the forged papers.
As a point of reference, this action was so terrible to the people that a prohibition against it forms the entire third amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
They snooker Bartolo out of the keys to the house and plan to abscond with Rosina at midnight. Rosina and Almaviva (Lindoro) have now met and literally fallen into each other's arms on the living room couch.
Confused yet? Remember, this is a Comedy of Manners a form best known during the Elizabethan period.
Dr. Bartolo is outraged that this drunken guy is going to be quartered in his house. The disagreement is so loud a platoon of soldiers shows up. Bartolo complains to the officer in charge. Almaviva takes the guy aside and reveals his true identity. The officer backs off. Nobility had its privileges in 1816. Figaro giggles and the first act ends.
We won't take you through Act II except to say that Almaviva (Lindoro / Veterinarian soldier) takes on still another identity, this time a music teacher. He eventually ends up with the girl after more twists and complications.
I would be remiss if several additional characters were not mentioned. Robert Gibby Brand is the blind butler who somehow shuffles off to whatever is laying on the stage and then picks it up. Ruby Dibble is the sexy red-haired maid who may or may not have the hots for Dr. Bartolo. Brian Banion is Don Basilio who is Rosina's regular music teacher and Bartolo's easily flipped fixer.
This version of "Barber of Seville" should actually be three separate shows. Director Michael Shell has updated this production in the cutting edge style of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. According to Shell, Almodovar walks a fine line between dramatic comedy and absurdity. In this case, the show may topple off the line. All the pieces-parts are executed well, but together they may be kind of a hot mess in the eyes of some or just super in the eyes of others.
First and foremost is the music. Rossini's music conducted by Leonardo Vordoni with the Kansas City Symphony is sublime. The singers are uniformly excellent. As a concert, this production is top drawer. In particular, Jarrett Ott sings the most recognizable melody of the opera where he introduces himself as Figaro.
Second is the slapstick comedy. I could not help thinking I was seeing a silent movie with a sound track off to the side. An inside joke has to do with an omni-present stuffed rooster and the caressing of said prop. A patient in the doctor's office is repeatedly twirled into the equipment. The soldiers and the Spanish policemen are obvious Keystone Kop references.
Making a two century old comedy still funny in a form that reached its peak four centuries ago is daunting. Comedy is almost always about the timing. Add in the additional complication that "Barber of Seville" is written in a language most of the audience doesn't speak and the director has an Everest sized mountain to climb. The direction required to keep control of the comedy is necessarily very broad.
Third, the costuming is confusing. Given, Almaviva is in Seville to participate in a local festival. Figaro wears a seventeenth century waistcoat. Almaviva wears a modern suit, a tweed sport coat, a nineteenth century soldier's uniform, and an outfit from the cover of a 1969 Beetles album complete with sitar. Rosina wears modern business attire and a modern, sexy, red dress. Don Basilo wears kind of a purple zoot suit. The maid wears a 1950s maid outfit gone Latin. Dr. Bartolo is mainly dressed as a supermarket manager with khakis, short sleeve dress shirt, and a tie. The blind Butler is costumed from England in the 1940s. The Spanish police are musical comedy Keystone Kops.
The set is very well executed but with graphics reminiscent of the 1960s. Scene changes are exceptionally slick.
I salute the inventiveness of this cast and its director. Whether it works for individual audience members is a matter of personal choice. This examination is an attempt to help you enjoy "Barber" more completely. The music is super and the plan is well executed.
Lyric Opera's "Barber of Seville" May 2,4, and 6 at the Kauffman. Tickets are available at www.kcopera.org.
Photos courtesy of Lyric Opera of Kansas City and Cory Weaver.