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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the July 17, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `The Barber of Seville’

Giacomo Rossini wrote "The Barber of Seville"

in 1816 when he was 24. It took him less than two weeks. He was renowned

in the musical world as a master of the formulaic comedy popular at

the time. Surprisingly, the opera was a failure when it debuted in

Rome. The singers were poor; one of them tripped and finished the

performance with a bloody nose; and a cat wandering onstage stole

the spotlight. However, the opera overcame its inauspicious start

and is now a perennial favorite among those who go to the theater

to have a good time.

In his prequel to Mozart’s "The Marriage of Figaro," Rossini

recounts the attempts of two suitors to gain Rosina’s hand. One is

the aged Doctor Bartolo, Rosina’s guardian; the other is Count Almaviva,

whom Rosina loves. Figaro, the barber, who is at the nerve center

of all goings-on in Seville, is an eager meddler. His machinations

aim to win Rosina for Almaviva, and to keep Bartolo from marrying


Opera Festival of New Jersey’s "Barber," which has its final

performance Saturday, July 20, is a delight, a sparkling bel canto

romp. At the July 5 performance, abetted by a strong ensemble that

seemed to relish every comic moment, Margaret Lattimore made Rosina

a complex character. At the coloratura end of her enormous vocal range

she effortlessly delivered florid melodic lines, making Rosina musically

fetching. In her solid lower register she conveyed the girl’s determination.

Having heard her last season with OFNJ in the role of Orfeo, I experienced

her virtuosity in Rossini that even went beyond the vocal power and

nuance that marked her performance in the Gluck work.

Daniel Belcher’s Figaro was a figure at ease with himself, physically

animated, and comfortable vocally. He conveyed the casual authority

of a person from the lower classes who considered himself the equal

of the aristocrats he served. Kevin Glavin was a strong Bartolo. He

demonstrated that superb musicianship can be used in the service of

portraying a bemused character. In voice and deportment he provided

a stalwart foil for Matthew Rose’s vivid, insinuating Don Basilio.

The portly Bartolo and the lanky Basilio played off each other like

trylon and perisphere. Jesus Garcia as Count Almaviva was at his best

when, disguised as a music teacher, he blossomed into a comic, ceaselessly

blessing Bartolo. His singing elsewhere was occasionally somewhat

wan. All the men delivered their intricate patter songs with clarity

and agility. Ensemble singing was tight and tuneful.

Howard Reddy (Fiorello, Almaviva’s servant,) John Henry Thomas (Ambrogio,

Dr. Bartolo’s servant,) and Erin Holland (Berta, Dr. Bartolo’s housekeeper,)

held their own in supporting roles.

Thrifty with his time, Rossini reused for the "Barber"

an overture that he employed for three other operas. Played with the

curtain down, it gave the audience a chance to take the measure of

the orchestra. Bernard Labadie, artistic director of Opera de Quebec,

made his OFNJ debut in the "Barber," and demonstrated within

the first few measures, his deft handling of gradations of loud and

soft. He conducted shapely phrases. Under his leadership the winds

were memorable, playing with authority and grace. Tempos were brisk

and the music was devoid of unnecessary reverence. Occasionally, vocalists

could not be heard above the orchestra.

Throughout the opera harpsichordist Lynn Baker, making her debut at

OFNJ, punctuated vocal lines and dramatic action with just the right

balance between self-effacement and assertiveness. Baker was also

in charge of musical preparation. Patrick Mercuri’s guitar was an

excellent off-stage surrogate for the serenading Almaviva as he and

his retinue stood hopefully below Rosina’s window at the beginning

of the piece.

Almaviva’s companions furnished a striking array of human sizes, shapes,

clothing, and gaits, hilarious in their variety. The same band reappeared

to create a visual pun, displaying themselves in all their motley

physical variety, as soldiers uniformly dressed in scarlet knee pants,

white shirts, and oversized cocked hats. It was one of the marks

of collaboration between director Albert Sherman and Eduardo Sicangco,

who was responsible for sets and costume design.

Sherman proved himself a master of hubbub. His attention to movement

was notable in the vocal sextet that ends Act I, when singers braided

themselves about, moving and tilting as they sang. One considered

the possibility that the antics of the Marx Brothers have their roots

in Rossini.

Eduardo Sicangco’s costumes contributed to the comedy. Bartolo’s elaborate

garb, for example, was appropriately exaggerated. A minor flaw was

Sicangco’s decision to give Rosina garments in Act I that made the

slender singer look plump. His sets were lovely and logical. Sue Sittko

Schaefer’s wigs were suitably 18th century.

In OFNJ’s adept production Rossini’s "Barber of Seville" effectively

hides its age. Its appeal is broad. This is an opera to which you

could bring your children and your mother-in-law, your auto mechanic,

your accountant, your neighbor. Here is an opportunity for everyone

to take superb musicianship for granted and have a good laugh together.

In case you can’t get to "Barber" at OFNJ, there is a second

chance to see it as shaped by OFNJ people. Albert Sherman again directs

the Rossini piece in the fall, this time for New York City Opera,

and David Agler, artistic director of OFNJ, conducts.

— Elaine Strauss

The Barber of Seville, Opera Festival of New Jersey,

McCarter Theater, University Place, 609-258-2787. Pre-performance

lecture at 2:45 p.m. $24 to $82. Saturday, July 20, 4 p.m.

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