Murrella Parton (Berta), Joshua Hopkins (Figaro), Emily Fons (Rosina), Jack Swanson (Count Almaviva), Nicholas Newton (Don Basilio), Kevin Burdette (Dr. Bartolo), photo by Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera
When we tell people how much we love opera, they usually assume we are speaking about a "very serious art form". They seem surprised to learn that opera can be lighthearted and even funny. Yet some of our greatest masterpieces are considered comedies. Does Il barbiere di Siviglia qualify as a masterpiece? We say YES! In the wrong hands it could be dull and overly long. but in the hands of the Santa Fe Opera we can not think of Rossini's work as anything but a masterpiece. No wonder it is the hit of the 2022 season!
Stephen Barlow has directed with admirable panache. Not a single funny stone was left unturned. Andrew D. Edwards has designed sets and costumes with style and wit aplenty. The columns flanking the set were neither Dorian nor Ionian; they were "Barberian"--the familiar old-fashioned striped barber poles.
For us, the most important aspect of an opera is the singing and we cannot imagine better casting. In our review of Performance Santa Fe's recital, we admired the bel canto singing and believable chemistry between Emily Fons and Jack Swanson. What a perfect choice for the roles of Rosina and "Lindoro" (Count Almaviva). Both sounded even better than they did at the recital, and that's saying a lot. Rossini's elaborate vocal challenges were more than met. Fantastic fioriture and super scale passages, terrific trills, and commanding cadenze tickled the ear.
In the role of the eponymous barber, we heard baritone Joshua Hopkins, a Santa Fe regular whose performances we have always enjoyed. This role suited his vocal skills perfectly. His "Largo al factotum" was delivered with several original touches that rose above the customary clichés.
Bass Kevin Burdette, another Santa Fe Opera regular, made a spectacular showing as Dr. Bartolo. The first time we saw him in a comic role we were astonished by his comic chops. Last night we were more impressed than astonished. We were not aware of the extraordinary flexibility of his body which he employed with as much artistry as he did his voice. The laughter when he slid out of his chair like a flow of lava just about drowned out the singing. The rapid patter of "A un dottor della mia forte" was executed with precision.
The brilliant bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green, making his SFO debut, brought his incredible artistry to the role of Don Basilio, using his magnificent instrument successfully, revealing a great sense of comic timing. We delighted in his aria "La calunnia" in spite of some excessive directorial touches which we will address later.
As a huge fan of the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Program, we are most delighted to honor the performances of two apprentices who fulfilled their roles with equal aplomb.
Baritone Kyle Miller made a stylish Fiorello as he assembled his musicians to accompany Mr. Swanson's cavatina "Ecco ridente". Although the role is not a large one, he must set the stage for the serenade of his boss' lady love and this he did admirably.
Soprano Murrella Parton illuminated the role of Berta and was given some unusual stage business that increased her importance in the opera. We look forward to hearing more from these three gifted apprentices.
Also given quite a lot of importance was the chorus, so well prepared by Chorus Master Susanne Sheston. We are always dazzled by their vocalism but in this case they were given a great deal to do as Fiorella's musicians, each of whom had his own personality. Later they appeared as a swat team! More on that anon!
Maestro Iván López Reynoso established the Rossinian pace right from the overture. We loved the contrast between the staccato themes and the legato ones. Just as the Finns should borrow some vowels from the Italians, so contemporary composers should borrow some tunes from Rossini! The master even borrowed from himself!
And now, we would like to address the issue of staging. Without a doubt, this production is a crowd pleaser and often the laughter drowned out the singing. We agree that humor is vital in an opera buffa but in this case we feel the direction was over the top and the high jinx frequently distracted from the singing. Surely the characters owe a debt to commedia del'arte but we want opera to build upon its origins and to rise above mono-dimensionality
We believe ours to be a minority opinion but we felt the work was over directed. Much of what we objected to involved the touches of contemporaneity. Count Almaviva, alone among the characters, is dressed in contemporary casual--a hoodie to be exact; and he pays Fiorella with a mafioso suitcase filled with cash. One of the musicians is drinking from a styrofoam coffee cup. Berta pushes a Hoover around the floor and describes the chaos to an unseen listener on the telephone. Don Basilio carries a laptop and takes selfies with his cellphone. Figaro reclines in Rosina's bathtub. The police who come to quell the chaos are a swat team. Berta emerges from her servant's uniform as a glamorous star surrounded by a chorus of men in top hats and tails. We could go on and on but we believe you, dear reader, will get the picture.
When every character acts bizarrely or inappropriately funny, the impact of comedy becomes lost. Among lots of peculiar characterization, the arrogant Dr. Bartolo was directed as a simpering fop. At one point, he donned a sweat band, spread out a yoga mat and began doing weird contortions.
This "originality" was echoed by the set. Dr. Bartolo's house was a plaster cast of Rossini's face. His eyes were used as windows and his mouth as a door. Hedges imitated a huge handlebar mustache. The audience applauded before the singing began. This stage element revolved to show the inside of the home. Below was a period parlor and above was Rosina's room. Bars around it suggested a cage, commenting on her imprisonment by Dr. Bartolo. She sat on a swing, going forward and back. Necessary stage elements like the doctor's piano were wheeled on and off.
If this sounds like your cup of tea, you will have a rollicking good time. On our part, we would like to "unsee" this production and remember the way the excellent cast sang Rossini's glorious music, the thrilling duets (not only the love duet but the one between Rosina and Figaro), and the many layered ensembles, so well crafted by the composer.
© meche kroop