Palm Beach Opera’s “Barber” makes for a fizzing and delightful night of Rossini

By Lawrence Budmen

The Barber of Seville is one of the most delightfully witty and high-spirited Italian comic operas ever created. With a cast of gifted singers, a stylish conductor and a production that underlines the humor and wisdom of Beaumarchais’ French farce, Rossini’s masterpiece can be the most joyous of operatic evenings.

Palm Beach Opera’s production opened Friday night at the Kravis Center and hit all the right notes. Throughout the performance, the audience laughed uproariously at the cannily staged, nonstop comedy and cheered the cast at the final curtain.

Allen Moyer’s clever sets, created originally for Minnesota Opera, combine a proscenium framing the action  with charming painted backdrops and doors on both sides that help speed the show along. Director Fenlon Lamb keeps a breathless pace without degenerating into clichéd sight gags. Strobe lights enhance the wonderful confusion of the Act I finale while the storm scene is staged as a Keystone Cops silent movie pantomime. Displaying theatrical ingenuity and artistic taste, Lamb’s staging captures the essence of bubbly opera buffa rather than exaggerated sitcom.

Rodion Pogossov’s voluminous-voiced, personality-plus Figaro is both barber and stage manager, supervising the settings and servants as he schemes to aid Count Almaviva win the hand of Rosina. Entering from the audience, he tossed off “Largo al factotum” with brio.

The handsome Count Almaviva of David Portillo was that rarity—a dulcet-voiced lyric tenor who can spin agile coloratura at top speed without strain. He sang “Ecco ridente” elegantly and dispatched the rapid-fire patter with verve during his Act I duet with Pogossov. Portillo was hilarious in Almaviva’s disguises–as a drunken soldier and the bogus music teacher Don Alfonso, in which his comedic falsetto drew reams of laughter. Even late in the opera, he assayed the high lying writing of the ensembles at full vocal strength.

As Rosina, Gaia Petrone proved a real discovery. The Italian mezzo-soprano’s dusky timbre encompasses extremes of vocal range from deep low tones to an upper register that extends into soprano territory. Petrone’s version of “Una voce poco fa” was highly ornamented, the trills accurate and fearless.  Her duet with Pogossov was  bouncy and delicate,  delivered with idiomatic flair. Petrone’s Rosina was a woman of real wiles, as much a schemer as her ward Dr. Bartolo. Her faux, tearful melodramatics when she learns the Count is not the student Lindoro had the cast and audience in stitches alike and, in the numerous ensembles, Petrone’s large instrument blended mellifluously with her colleagues.

Bruno Pratico is a seasoned comic and his pompous Dr. Bartolo never veered into caricature, even introducing a note of poignancy for the old man’s delusions about marrying the youthful Rosina. While Pratico’s voice is slightly light for the basso buffo role, he has the style down and contributed vocal and theatrical high jinks aplenty.

Wayne Tigges’ deep bass easily encompassed the rolling strophes of “La Calunia” and he brought a modicum of dignity to Rosina’s music teacher and Bartolo’s henchman Don Basilio.

Thomas Greenhalgh was a feisty Fiorello, his strong baritone perhaps foretelling a future Figaro. Rachel Arky seemed a born comedienne as Bartolo’s beleaguered servant and her light soprano shone in a deft traversal of Berta’s aria. Joseph Dennis, the impressive Malcolm of PBO’s recent production of Macbeth, was a buffoon of an officer in the best Gilbert and Sullivan tradition.

Conductor Patrick Fournillier is best known for his performances of the French operatic and orchestral literature but he was no less persuasive with Rossini. His taut, lively direction kept  plenty of fizz in this musical champagne.  The dizzying Act I finale really sparkled, voices and orchestra perfectly balanced. Except for initial horn fluffs in the overture, the orchestra played Rossini’s score with edge of the seat brilliance.

In the final tableaux, a large portrait of Rossini came down as the backdrop for the wedding and concluding ensemble, an appropriate finale to an evening of wonderful entertainment.

Palm Beach Opera repeats The Barber of Seville 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. pbopera.org561-833-7888. 

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Sat Feb 22, 2014
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