Fine singing upstaged–again–by crude stage direction in FGO’s “Barber”

By David Fleshler

Sarah Coburn as Rosina provided most of the bright spots in FGO's "Barber of Seville." Photo: Gaston De Cardenas.

Sarah Coburn as Rosina provided most of the bright spots in FGO's "Barber of Seville." Photo: Gaston De Cardenas.

Performances of Rossini’s Barber of Seville rarely err on the side of subtlety, and such was the case with the Florida Grand Opera production that opened Saturday at the Arsht Center in Miami.

This production of Rossini’s opera buffa classic, as often with this company, provides mixed rewards: outstanding singing in two principal roles, medicore singing in others, sets that tried to made the best of difficult economic times, and Curly-Larry-and-Moe stage action that generated some funny moments but at the price of overpowering the wit of Rossini’s score.

The opera tells the story of the beautiful Rosina, shut up in a house by her guardian Doctor Bartolo, being wooed — under a false name — by the young Count Almaviva. With the help of the resourceful and scheming barber Figaro, Almaviva attempts to get inside the house under various disguises to marry Rosina before Bartolo succeeds in his own plan to marry her.

All of Florida Grand Opera’s productions this season are in the hands of designer André Barbe and stage director Renaud Doucet, a team that has aggressively put their stamp on the operas. The backdrops for Barber were a series of silhouettes and computer-generated animations that were sleek and stylish without being too jarring for this early 19th-century work. The cartoon graphics provided subtle enhancements to the production, although they became a distraction at times when the focus should have been on the music.

The soprano Sarah Coburn, an FGO regular, brought an effortless coloratura to the role of Rosina. In her show-stopping aria Una voce poco fa, she handled Rossini’s intricate ornamentation with ease, adding a few touches of her own. Her high notes emerged naturally and easily, without a trace of windup or effort. Her singing continued at the same high level in the ensembles and solos that followed, particularly in the music lesson aria Contro un cor che accende amor. In contrast to some of the other performers, her acting was subtle to the point of being cinematic, possibly because she spent the opera in a hoop dress that would have tripped up Scarlett O’Hara.

As Rosina’s lover Count Almaviva, the Canadian tenor Frédéric Antoun showed himself to be first-rate in both singing and acting. In his serenades Ecco ridente in cielo and Se il mio nome saper voi bramate, Antoun brought a buttery-smooth voice that exactly fit the role of the suave young count, although he tended to run out of breath at times  and chop off a few phrases. His comic sense was effective, too, as when he appeared at Bartolo’s home disguised as an irritating music teacher who obsessively wishes peace and happiness to the annoyed doctor.

Roderick Williams was the title hair stylist in FGO's "Barber of Seville." Photo: Gaston De Cardenas

Roderick Williams was the title hair stylist in FGO's "Barber of Seville." Photo: Gaston De Cardenas

In the role of Figaro, the British baritone Roderick Williams provided the vocal goods but not the stage presence. His Largo al factotum— among the two or three most famous arias in all opera — came off with humor and solid vocalism, although the patter section, in which the singer is required to sing as fast as possible, was breathless and under-projected, lacking the virtuosity a good Gilbert-and-Sullivan trouper would have given it.

Whether the influence of director Doucet or his own interpretation, Williams also reduced the character of the wily barber to that of a greedy, clowning low-life, missing a crucial element of what gives this opera its energy. Figaro is a young man who is proud of his work and his shop, and considers himself in no way the inferior of Seville’s aristocratic grandees, and that social dignity was lacking in Williams’ performance.

Also the animations here proved distracting. In Figaro’s brief aria describing his business, the humor is in the heroic tones of the orchestra and singing, as he describes the shop’s sign and the five wigs in the window. The focus should be on the mock-heroic barber, but while this is happening we have to watch the computer-animated background busily assemble his shop for us, with wigs flying through the air.

The best comedy and most effective characterization actually came from the pit, where the orchestra turned in an outstanding performance under Gary Thor Wedow, back after an acclaimed company debut in 2008 in Julius Caesar. Rossini’s music is difficult to get right, requiring crisp and clean playing, with energy, humor and a subtle sense of timing and dynamics. Despite an occasional rough spot, violins and winds delivered particularly strong performances of Rossini’s rapid-fire orchestra writing. And Wedow proved himself a master of the Rossini crescendo, providing a lot of the genuine comedy and high spirits that were often missing on stage.

Wide of girth with a hideous gray wig, Bruno Pratico’s Doctor Bartolo made an especially unlikely suitor for Rosina. The bass-baritone’s light voice handled the role competently, skipping the more stentorian approach taken by many singers.

As Don Basilio, Rosina’s music teacher, the bass Tom Corbeil performed capably, although in his big aria La calunnia é un venticello, which ascends through a classic Rossini crescendo, he allowed the orchestra to carry most of the load.

Through much of the performance there was a sense of this production trying too hard, as if the audience wouldn’t appreciate the humor unless it was brought to the lowest possible level. At the end of the first act, after the police arrive and the different characters stand and sing frozen with shock, Figaro walks up to each one and arranges them in various disgusting poses.

All this broad comedy obliterates the class distinctions that had made opera buffa such a subversive art in its time: When everyone is mugging and playing for crude sight gags, the upper class has no dignity to be punctured and members of the lower class can’t display the street-smarts that allow them to outwit their social superiors. And it interferes with the comedy inherent in Rossini’s music, which was done justice by Wedow and the orchestra in this performance.

Florida Grand Opera performs Rossini’s Barber of Seville through Feb. 28 at the Arsht Center and March 4 and 6 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. Call 800-741-1010 or go to www.fgo.org.

Posted in Performances


22 Responses to “Fine singing upstaged–again–by crude stage direction in FGO’s “Barber””

  1. Posted Feb 21, 2010 at 10:22 pm by Andrew Nienaber

    I’m sure Mr. Pratico will be thrilled to hear that you ascribed his natural figure to a fat suit. Way to gather the facts, Mr. Fleshler. Journalism at its finest.

  2. Posted Feb 22, 2010 at 12:40 am by Bob Heuer

    I have now become convinced that Mr. Flesher needs a pair of glasses. Last month, he stated that we had padded Eglise Gutierrez’s breasts to match the ghost in Lucia. This is false, those were Ms. Gutierrez’ own breasts. Now in Barber, he states that a fat suit was used to make Bruno Pratico replusive. This is also false since every inch is Mr. Pratico’s own.

    I am also convinced that Mr. Flesher needs to spend a little more time learning opera styles particularly Italian opera because Mr. Pratico is considered to be the leading singer in the world today performing this role. Prior to joining us in Miami, he sang the role for Placido Domingo’s Los Angeles Opera and has sang it in every major opera house in the world. Only in this reviewer opinion is “Pratico’s light voice handled the role competently.” We are very proud to have this important singer in our production.

    Apparently, Mr. Flesher was the only member of the audience to find the animations distracting because the response from the audience and standing ovation told a different story. If one is only able to concentrate on one thing at a time then maybe they were distracting but in opera one must be able to take in many elements including the singing, orchestra, acting and physical production all at the same time. In fact, this is what makes opera a great art form.

    I recommend that the public should see productions and make up their own minds and not accept the opinion of one person who is called a critic.

  3. Posted Feb 22, 2010 at 1:35 pm by Lawrence A. Johnson

    Yep, David made an error, since corrected, in ascribing Mr. Pratico’s imposing figure to prosthetic assistance. (Not the first time that has happened with this singer, by the way.)

    Mr. Heuer, FGO’s general director, is clearly mistaken himself, however, in his bizarre contention that David commented about Eglise Gutierrez’s breasts in his previous review of FGO’s Lucia di Lammermoor. While we’re all happy to hear Mr. Heuer assure us that her endowment is genuine, there was never any statement made by David about Eglise’s chest or body in his review, either online on South Florida Classical Review or as reprinted in the Miami Herald.

    Miami’s opera audience is a lively and highly opinionated bunch, and I have no doubt that those who attend future Barber performances will, indeed, make up their own minds and freely post their observations here.

    Lawrence A. Johnson
    Editor
    South Florida Classical Review

  4. Posted Feb 22, 2010 at 2:54 pm by Dave R.

    Wow! We should start listing Bob Heuer’s mistakes over the past 25 years! I think some of them are a bit plumper than a reviewer mistaking a person’s natural body for a fat suit!

    And speaking of people whose abilities are far below their seemingly significant title…general director of Florida Grand Opera?

  5. Posted Feb 22, 2010 at 5:51 pm by VASLAV SOKOLOV

    TO MR. JOHNSON

    Editor of the South Florida Classical Review

    MR FLESHLER HAS PROVEN ONCE MORE THAT HE IS ABSOLUTELY NOT REPRESENTING THE MAJORITY OF THE MIAMI OPERAGOERS.

    HE CLEARLY HOLDS A GRUDGE AGAINST FGO AND HIS REVIEWS HAVE BEEN DESTRUCTIVE FOR MANY PRODUCTIONS.

    IT SEEMS THAT MR FLESHLER WAS NOT IN THE THEATRE ON SATURDAY NIGHT FOR THIS BARBIERE OPENING. THE AUDIENCE GAVE A FANTASTIC STANDING OVATION TO THE CAST, MAESTRO AND PRODUCTION TEAM. THIS WAS A REAL HUGE SUCCESS AND IT NEVER WAS MENTIONED IN THE REVIEW. PERSONALY I ENJOYED EVERY SECOND OF IT.

    IT IS DISTURBING THAT MR FLESHLER COULD CHANGE WHAT HE ALREADY WROTE ABOUT MR PRATICO’S APPEARANCE WITHOUT APPOLOGIZING TO THE SINGER AND HIS READERS.

    HE ALSO SPEAKS ABOUT SOME MEDIOCRE SINGERS… WHO ? AT LEAST HE COULD HAVE THE DECENCY TO FINISH HIS THOUGHTS OR FOREVER HOLD HIS PEACE. IT IS A GRATUITIOUS ATTITUDE !

    “CRUDE STAGE DIRECTION” ?… REALLY ? YOU MEAN: ENTERTAINING THEATRE FILLED WITH FRESH IDEAS BUT STILL BASED ON THE BEAUMARCHAIS PLAY!!! FOR INSTANCE MR FLESHLER DID NOT MENTIONNED (OR PROBABLY NOTICED) ANY OF THE REFERENCES TO THE NOZZE DI FIGARO… BUT DOES HE KNOW THAT OPERA IS ALSO THEATRE ?

    REGARDING HIS LACK OF COSTUME KNOWDELGE, IT GOES WITH THE REST… HE SHOULD KNOW WHAT IS AN 18 CENTURY PANIER DRESS ……….. NOTHING TO DO WITH A HOOP SKIRT OF THE 1860′S AS SEEN THROUGH THE HOLLYWOOD EYES OF THE 30’S…

    BUT WHY SHOULD HE BOTHER? IN FACT HE SHOWS US HOW TERRIBLY PROVINCIAL HIS REFERENCES ARE.

    I WOULD ADVISE HIM TO TRAVEL A LITTLE BIT TO SEE WHAT IS PRESENTED THROUGHOUT THE WORLD IN THE LEADING COMPANIES.

    I DO HAVE THIS CHANCE AND THIS BARBIERE WAS FIRST CLASS ON ALL LEVELS.

    BUT MAYBE THIS SUPPOSED “OPERA REVIEWER” SHOULD STICK TO HIS CDS AND NOT COME TO THE THEATRE ANYMORE.

    CULTURE IS A BASE FOR A REAL CRITIC AND HE CLEARLY PROOVES NOT HAVING MUCH.

    HE SPEAKS ABOUT CLASS DISTINCTION WITHOUT HAVING A CLUE OF WHAT IT MEANS. MAYBE HE SHOULD READ THE COURT CODIFICATION OF THE 18 CENTURY…..

    IT IS A SHAME FOR SOUTH FLORIDA CLASSICAL NEWS TO HIRE SOMEBODY WITH SUCH AN OBVIOUS LACK OF RIGOUR .

    MR FLESHLER SHOULD START TO BE A LITTLE SERIOUS AND RESPECT THE AUDIENCE MEMBERS WHO ENJOYED TREMENDOUSLY THIS PERFORMANCE OF IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA AS THEY SO WARMLY EXPRESSED IT ON SATURDAY NIGHT.

    I AM SORRY TO INFORM MR FLESHLER THAT HIS DESIRE TO STAY STUCK IN THE 19th CENTURY DOES NOT REPRESENT THE VAST MAJORITY OF THE OPERA PUBLIC. WE ENJOY THIS ART FORM AND WE ARE VERY HAPPY TO SEE IT ALIVE AND ENTERING THE 21st CENTURY.

    I INVITE THE MIAMI AUDIENCE TO RUN TO IT. THEY WILL HEAR SUPERB 1ST CLASS SINGERS AND HAVE A WONDERFUL TIME IN A PRODUCTION FILLED WITH HUMOUR AND WIT. NOT A BAD THING IN THOSE DREARY TIMES.

  6. Posted Feb 22, 2010 at 9:39 pm by Andrew Nienaber

    Just to be clear: Fleshler’s contention that Mr. Pratico was stuffed into a fat suit, made with absolutely no reference or research, is a perfectly normal and harmless mistake (conveniently fixed after the fact), but Mr. Heuer mistaking Fleshler’s review of Lucia for another review (it was, in fact, the review from the Nuevo Herald – Fleshler’s was printed in the Herald) is a “bizarre contention”, and one that, interestingly, can neither be edited nor deleted.

    I won’t argue Fleshler’s opinion points as opinions are something that can’t be quantified or argued, but I do take umbrage at unfair journalism and personal attacks.

  7. Posted Feb 23, 2010 at 6:58 am by Lawrence A. Johnson

    Mr. Nienaber is too modest and professional to mention it, but, just to be clear, he is an assistant director at Florida Grand Opera and of the current production of “Barber.”

  8. Posted Feb 23, 2010 at 9:20 am by Ricky

    Indeed, it was Daniel Fernandez’s review of Lucia in “El Nuevo Herald” and not Mr. Fleshler that made reference to the chest padding of the ghost, seemingly done so to mirror Eglise’s natural endowment.

  9. Posted Feb 23, 2010 at 12:27 pm by William

    FGO is probably doing the best it can with this terrible economy, but I think critics should also speak their mind. That is their job. This Barbiere obviously did not sit well for Mr. Fleshler, and he has every right to say so. FGO has done some good productions in the past and some bad ones. I have to say that a bad review does not stop me from going to an opera if I like the singers or want to see a particular opera (like a rare piece like Kata Kabanova). I like to go and see for myself if the opera or singers hold any interest on paper. Problem is that nowdays when I see who is in the cast, I am usually like, “Who is that? Who are they?” Sometimes young, unknown singers are terrific, but if every opera and every cast member seems like an unknown, it gets old. If I lived in Miami I would definitely go see this Barber to hear Sarah Coburn who is excellent and also Pratico. On paper this Barber sounds good, but I can not stomach another Barber of Seville which is one of my least favorite operas. To me it is not funny and I am surprised how funny everyone in the audience usually finds it. Most productions resort to slapstick which I hate. I wish FGO would do something like Semiramide, but I know there is no chance of that in this economy. The Ziff Opera house would be 2/3 empty probably with Semiramide. I do wish they would do Norma. Whenever I have seen Norma at the Met or Palm Beach Opera, I notice the theatre is always packed. It is an opera people want to see, but the problem is casting. I think Jennifer Check did a great job at PB Opera and Hasmik Papian is decent (lacking some temperament). I bet FGO could afford either of those singers.

  10. Posted Feb 23, 2010 at 1:54 pm by Andrew Nienaber

    I am neither too modest nor too professional to admit my connection to the production. I used my real name and email address to leave these comments, and if the kind of research it took to Google my name had been done before the review had been printed I would have had nothing to say. As I stated, though I disagree with some of Mr. Fleshler’s arguments, they are his and he has a duty to express them. What I object to is bad journalism and personal attacks.

  11. Posted Feb 23, 2010 at 4:43 pm by Juan Morales

    I will not be seeing this production until Saturday night so I will hold my comments until then. Unfortunately will not be seeing Ms Coburn, but I might be pleasantly surprised as I was in Lucia. One thing judging from previous productions by Barbe & Doucet, I would say Mr Fleshler not too far off in his review. I do want to say to Mr Sokolov that just because an audience gives a “standing ovation” it doesn’t mean much these days. Audiences are not as sophisticated as they once were and I cringe at some of the “things” they give standing ovations to these days. Another thing why would there be references to Nozze in this production? I can see references to Beaumarchais play, but Mozart?
    I did have to crack up at Mr Heuer’s comment that FGO was very proud to have such an important singer as Mr Pratico in this production. To hear him speak you would think he had hired the likes of Juan Diego Florez for this production! Not to say Mr Pratico is a complete unknown, but please!!!

  12. Posted Feb 23, 2010 at 4:48 pm by Barbara Bourne

    Mr. Fleshler while not perfect as a critic is as accurate a critic as we have had around here for many years. He is a little too generous in praise of singing and the orchestra had a number of problems that he didn’t mention. But to attack him so thoroughly is unjustified.

  13. Posted Feb 23, 2010 at 7:02 pm by John

    Not everybody loved all the graphics. I could have done without the la-la-las, others were OK – loved that cat – but I never figured out whether the musicians in the opening scene were graphics or backlit live persons.

    Standing ovation, yes, but South Florida audiences will stand for anything.

  14. Posted Feb 24, 2010 at 9:29 am by Dave R.

    What I want to know is why Mr. Fleshler’s review makes no mention of the guy wearing the fat suit.

  15. Posted Feb 24, 2010 at 12:31 pm by Ricky

    Dave R. – As Lawrence Johnson states above, the comment regarding Mr. Pratico’s alleged “fat suit” has since been removed/corrected.

  16. Posted Feb 24, 2010 at 2:37 pm by Benjamin

    I saw the same cast and production last evening. I enjoyed it. Having just reread Mr. Fleshler’s review, I found it a very fair reflection of what I experienced in the theater.

    Just because an audience loves it doesn’t make it good. I, too, have been to many standing-ovation performances that made me cringe.

    A critic has the obligation to write what he hears and sees on a given evening, in part as a reporter and more importantly to help educate an audience so it can become more discriminating. Last night there was laudable singing, fine playing and conducting, and an engaging production built with obviously limited resources. Some things worked; some were less successful. FGO should get high marks for taking comic opera seriously and creating a fun evening in the theater.

  17. Posted Feb 24, 2010 at 11:36 pm by William

    I watched 3 short video clips on YouTube of this production, and it actually looks interesting. I think the production looks more promising than the actual singing.

  18. Posted Feb 25, 2010 at 11:25 pm by Len

    As general director of a major American Opera Company, Mr. Heuer ought to be embarrassed to have vented at a critic so peevishly. Is he the same man who was lovingly profiled in the Miami Herald last Sunday? Perhaps his response is the result of an accumulation of what he believes is one reviwer’s ill will toward FGO, and he’s not the first opera house director to be irked by a perceived detractor. But Mr. Fleshler is only doing his job, is only expressing his own (well-informed, I think) opinions, and hardly has the power to make or break a production.

  19. Posted Feb 26, 2010 at 12:31 am by Jeff Haller

    There was a time when standing ovations did mean something. That era is gone, and now it is just an audience’s way to deny that they were taken advantage of. Just think of some of the horrible things you have attended and were forced to stand during the ovations just to see the cast as they took their bows.

    It is wrong when a production distracts attention from the author’s and composer’s intentions, but could anyone say that was true with this Barber? Maybe all of it didn’t work, maybe sometimes it seemed a little redundant and excessive but I have never seen a Barber that flew by so quickly.

    I never saw a Lucia that was so sexy, and I never saw a Pagliacci that was so meaningful to Americans, so violent, so frightening and so entertaining. I don’t think Mr. Barbe and Mr. Doucet can be expected to bat 1.000 but so much of what they have done here so far has been more thought provoking than we are used to.

    And to those who don’t like experiencing a new approach to the bread and butter repertory, there are PLENTY of DVDs that have preserved those elements they consider sacred. They can save themselves some money and stay at home with them. And allow the rest of us to experience opera as a living art form.

    If this difficult economic time means that FGO’s opera productions are less elaborate and require greater creativity on the part of the design team and director, I think the potential flaw has been turned into a complete asset. Let’s hope it continues.

  20. Posted Feb 26, 2010 at 8:30 am by Dave R.

    I agree with Jeff Haller: FGO’s current efforts, which avoid any attempt at elaborate staging, are far better than its failed attempts at elaborate staging in the past. At least now when you go to an FGO production, you come away thinking, “Somebody put some thought into this.” That was my impression from what I saw on Tuesday (although it’s not an opera I’m familiar with). I didn’t feel like I had just witnessed opera amateur hour, and only one role was poorly cast (not bad considering the usual FGO production consists of one or two good/decent singers and crap down the line).

    Regarding the “loving” profile of Heuer in Sunday’s Herald, read it again closely: There are no mentions at all of Heuer’s artistic achievements. His friends in opera applaud his administrative skills (which are questionable considering that he did hire Stewart Robertson, didn’t he?) and the role he played in getting the opera house built (which, by the way, pales terribly in comparison to the opera houses in Houston and Seattle, especially in terms of public spaces). But one comes away from reading that article thinking, “Has this guy made any artistic contribution to opera or Florida classical music?” And the answer has to be no.

  21. Posted Mar 01, 2010 at 4:02 pm by Juan Morales

    I finally saw FGO’s production of Barber last Saturday night. It wasn’t as bad as I expected but not as fantastic as FGO wanted us to believe.
    First the singers. I was not fortunate to see Ms Coburn doing Rosina and I was truly sorry. Although Ms Berman has a beautiful and agile voice, it is very tiny and was easily drowned by the orchestra at times. Come to think of it the entire cast at times sounded like they were all out of breath and if it weren’t for the supra-titles going on, I would have never known they were singing. Mr Pfortmiller was wonderful and a real trooper, considering on Saturday night the fire alarm went off in the theater (falsely, thank God) right at the beginning of his entrance aria.
    Regarding the production, that is another story. Obviously nobody told this production team that “less is more”. In my opinion the projections as a backdrop were very clever and well done, unfortunately they had to push the cleverness over the top. For example in the opening sequence when the musicians came out, I found really beautiful and imaginative until the notes starting coming out of their instruments (not to mention the fountain “bit”) was that necessary? I overheard a member of the audience leaving the theater that night complaining to his partner he felt like he had just seen a production of Barber as done by the Cartoon Network.
    Another thing I found a little irritating was how many times they stopped the music in order to emphasize the slapstick. It seems to me that Doucet & Barber know a lot about theater and theatricality, but not much about opera. Although as an art form opera is a marriage of music, voice and drama; ultimately the music is the guiding force. For the sake of the “drama” this team ignores the music and the libretto (for Angelica, they even re-wrote it).
    I do have to agree with Mr Haller; this season all productions have been quite thought provoking, unfortunately not always in a good way.

  22. Posted Mar 10, 2010 at 9:13 am by Andre Barbe

    I wonder why one does work in that field…

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