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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
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
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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