Fine singing upstaged–again–by crude stage direction in FGO’s “Barber”
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.
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.
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Sun Feb 21, 2010
at 3:12 pm