Dallas — How much is too much?
This is the question posed by The Dallas Opera’s production of Rossini’s peripatetic masterpiece The Barber of Seville, seen on Friday evening. The company presents a dream cast and a whimsical “concept” production that works better than expected in creating both the specific locations and the Spanishness of Seville itself. But, slathered over all of this, right from the beginning, is a generous splotch of slapstick-sauce in the frenetic stage direction, which is either to your taste or not. As such, for better or for worse, it flavors every bite of Rossini’s delightful romp.
Personally, I was neutral about the banana-peel approach on Friday evening, finding the amusing to far outweigh the groaners. But even those brought a smile, like a pun you can see coming a mile away. There’s even a Victor Borge-style pratfall off the piano bench. The pros and cons of this approach made for lively conversation among the patrons at intermission.
Part of why the staging works, even for those who would prefer a subtler approach, is that it is hard to imagine a better cast. This is certainly true vocally, but also in their collective acting ability. In clumsier hands, some of the shtick would slip into schlock.
Nathan Gunn makes a suave barber. Barihunks fans even get a glimpse of his toned bod as he preps and dresses for a busy day during his “Figaro, Figaro” aria (one of the most famous in all of opera). The role fits his voice like a Savile Row suit and he manages to be a low-key Figaro, less the schemer and more of the problem-solver, even in this far from low-key production.
Isabel Leonard creates a crackerjack Rosina. Originally written for a contralto, every conceivable female voice has sung the role (with or without transpositions). Here Leonard’s mezzo voice has just enough soprano overtones to give her characterization a light touch, but enough mezzo to achieve Rossini’s concept. Her excellently sung coloratura runs are dramatically organic, growing out of the motivation of the text, rather than flights of notes. Some even incorporate laughter. This same kind of detail is noticeable throughout. She obviously decides how every note should be performed and puts it all together for a marvelous performance.
So often, this role is played with a petulant edge that makes you wonder why the Count would put up with her. Not here. Her characterization looks forward and you can see glints of the Countess that Rosina will become in Mozart’s sequel. While keeping the charm of youth, Leonard is always a lady, albeit a young and girlish one. In all her planning and conniving, she is more mischievous than merely mean.
As the Count, tenor Alex Shrader brings a clear, nicely produced, secure and flexible voice to the role. Actually, he brings many voices. His natural technique has quite a difference between his middle and top voice and he is able to mix the two, when the passage doesn’t go higher, to create a third sound. When he raises his chin, the voice loses focus but he uses that fourth sound expressively. Add to this his nasal character voice that he uses when he is in disguise, and you never quite know how he will sound.
Whatever vocal color he uses, he unfailingly puts it to use in developing his character. This Count is young acting and sounding. There is a touch of the good-natured frat boy about his characterization and he doesn’t take his royalty all that seriously. He enjoys his pretend role of a poor student and only reveals his status, regretfully and confidentially, when absolutely necessary to get out of a jam. In fact, he goofs on it at the end of the opera when Rosina is confronted with his rank.
Technically, his fast runs are flawless with minimal aspiration; he sounds as fresh in his last aria as in his first two that open the show. That last aria, by the way, always sounds strange in the tenor voice. Rossini stole it from this opera and inserted it into one of his next, La Cenerentola. It is in that form that we hear it frequently excerpted by mezzos in recital.
This opera has two of the best buffo bass roles in the repertoire, but their characters couldn’t be more different. In this production, that difference is clearer than usual. As Dr. Bartolo, Donato di Stefano brings a rubbery face and just the right amount of bravura to the role. He conveys an air of confidence, bordering on self-delusion, thinking that he might still be attractive to his ward, Rosina. His Bartolo is not as befuddled as we sometimes get. He is, after all, a highly educated man—a doctor—and di Stefano plays him with some dignity while not missing a single comic opportunity. The director has his wig fly off one time too many, but he makes each incident work with an increase of bluster.
Burak Bilgili takes on the other buffo bass role of Don Basilio in a completely opposite manner than usually seen. He plays the bumbling music master in a serious manner, without much comic exaggeration. This offers a striking onstage contrast to Bartolo without giving up his funny moments. A little more of such underplayed comedy would have helped the entire production.
Jennifer Aylmer is excellent as the servant, Berta. Her second-act aria, which is occasionally cut, gives her a chance to shine. While she is singing it, the director, once again, tosses in an editorializing joke that is funny but unnecessary. Nathan De’Shon Myers is gets the show off to an impressive start as Fiorello. Hopefully, we can expect to hear more of this fine singer in the future. Brian Post, promoted from the chorus, makes a successful solo debut as the with the company. He displays a sturdy voice and great comic timing as the Sergeant. Christian Teague is consistently funny in the silent role of Ambrosio.
The sets, by John Conklin, are clever and cartoonish and, as the opening curtain informs us, “D’apès Magritte.” That would be “after Magritte,” the Belgian surrealist painter who lived from 1898 to 1967. His work is marked by vivid blue skies with fluffy white clouds, bowler hats, umbrellas, gentle rains and floating chairs. His works are all painted with photo-realism, which makes the oddities, such as a man’s face blocked by a floating apple, all the more strange.
What this has to do with Seville in 1816, or the intrigues of Count Almaviva’s courtship, is open to question. But the question “Why Not?” must also be asked. Operas these days are frequently set in odd places and times. This production could have been played against a cubist set, or on the moon or in the midst of a jumble of boxes or no set at all. At least the costumes by Michael Stennett are of the period and his limited palette of colors lends itself to the cartoon nature of the set. A very nice touch is the spectacular final costumes for the Count and Rosina—brilliant blue and silver—riffing on Magritte’s sky motifs.
One reason for the success of the surrealist sets could be that the fluffy clouds add a non-threatening pastoral feel that negates some of the revolutionary ideas that pop up in the original source material for this opera: the three “Figaro plays” by Beaumarchais. After all, they were banned at the time for their subversive nature.
Giuliano Carella does an excellent job conducting this lively performance. In several spots on Friday, his tempi bordered on rushed without ever crossing that all-important line. There were a few times when the orchestra lagged behind, but by the time we got to the end of the opera, all these opening-night troubles had smoothed out.
» There will be a live simulcast of Barber on April 11 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. It will be paired with the Warner Bros./Bugs Bunny cartoon classic The Rabbit of Seville. It is free (so is parking), but you're encouraged to sign up at http://dallasopera.org/simulcast.