The giggles and guffaws of Saturday night’s audience for Giacomo Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” certify the timeliness of the two-century old opera. Rossini did his part. But it took inventive directing, outstanding musical leadership, and talented performers to evoke the listeners’ enthusiastic response. A spirited design team contributed to the general euphoria. The comic touches outside of Rossini’s domain were unpredictable, and could only have been achieved by close collaboration between design and artistic personnel.
The punctuality of the performance promised a lively evening. Indeed, General Director Richard Russell welcomed the audience minutes before the scheduled start. The overture began promptly at 8 p.m. With curtain drawn, instrumentalists from the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra created suspense by their arch reading of the skittish overture. Meanwhile, titles projected overhead provided basic information about the work and subtly reminded listeners that the overhead projections would provide English translations of the lyrics. The closed curtain contributed to the suspense.
Mark Laycock conducted. Michael Scarola was the stage director. The design team included Jeffrey Dean, scenery; Patricia Hibbert, costumes; Ken Yunker, lighting; and Amy Wright, wigs and make-up.
The curtain rose to reveal an inviting courtyard at dawn, where Count Almaviva (Hak Soo Kim), accompanied by his servant Fiorello (Mark Warich) and musicians, was discreetly serenading his beloved Rosina (Heather Johnson). In his courtship of Rosina, Almaviva hid his identity and presented himself as the poor student Lindoro. The Almaviva/Lindoro group departed quietly and was replaced by an animated cohort of women and children. Finally, Figaro, the life-loving Barber (Marco Nistico) arriving by wheelbarrow, dominated the scene. His brisk patter aria announced that just about everyone demanded his advice and services. Dramatically and musically the opening numbers formed a visual and audible crescendo. Throughout the evening, the intensity was sustained.
Vocal ensemble numbers during the course of the opera ranged from duets to sextets. They were crisp, vivid, transparent, and dramatically alive.
Accompanying recitatives on the piano, Kristen Kemp meticulously shadowed the rises and falls of vocalists. I found the sound of the piano somewhat jarring for Rossini’s setting of Beaumarchais’ 18th century play, on which he based the opera, and would have preferred a harpsichord.
Don Bartolo (Stefano de Peppo), Rosina’s guardian, has been keeping her in seclusion. His patter aria vowing to lock her up so even air won’t pass through the door is one of the opera’s high points. Bartolo wants to marry his ward. His friend Don Basilio, Rosina’s music teacher (Young Bok Kim), supports the idea and helps Bartolo make arrangements.
The irrepressible Figaro has devised a way for Almaviva/Lindoro to circumvent Bartolo and reach Rosina. He is to disguise himself as a soldier and claim to be billeted in Bartolo’s house. Costume designer Hibbert makes a costume-designer joke by having Almaviva/Lindoro’s billeted-soldier disguise identical to those of the police, who eventually appear.
The servants Berta (Meredith Mecum) and Ambrogio (Jayson Greenberg) contribute to the hilarity. Berta delivers comic sneezes. The stoop-shouldered, knobby-kneed Ambrogio looks intrinsically comical. His lack of technique in handling a broom is laughable.
The production abounds in sight-gags. For instance, music teacher Don Basilio wears an extremely long scarf, which he painstakingly, unwraps from his neck. Almaviva/Lindoro, disguised as the music teacher Don Alonso, wears a similarly long scarf, in which he gets tangled when he tries to remove it, painstakingly, from his neck. Again, the scarf scenes show the intimate participation of those involved with varying aspects of the production. To unwrap the scarves had to have been coordinated with the music.
In his directing Scarola draws on whatever makes sense in the context of the opera. He arranges it to end with a West-Point flourish when the police raise their muskets in order to form an arch over the heads of the newly-married Almaviva and Rosina.
The vitality continues into the curtain calls, where young women on a balcony throw down roses in the direction of Figaro.
The flow and perfection of this “Barber of Seville” make its antics singularly palatable. Curiously, its outstanding comic aspects smooth the way to an appreciation of the ways in which the philosophy of the 18th century Enlightenment led to the modern world. Figaro, the barber with extraordinary composure and self-confidence was an unlikely hero at a time when aristocratic leadership was rarely questioned. The froth of Opera New Jersey’s production makes thinking about the philosophy behind the piece easy to assimilate.
Barber of Seville, Opera New Jersey, McCarter’s Matthews Theater, Princeton. Sunday, July 17, 2 p.m., and Saturday, July 23, 8 p.m. New Jersey Symphony Chamber Orchestra accompanies the production. Mark Laycock conducts. $20 plus. 609-799-7700 or www.operanj.org.