Sacramento Opera 16th November –
Gioachino Rossini Barber of Seville (1816 Rome)
Libretto by Cesare Sterbini after Pierre – Augustin Beaumarchais’ Le barbier de Séville
Count Alamviva : Thomas Glenn
Dr Bartolo: Stephen Eisenhard
Rosina: Leah Wool
Figaro ( a barber) Malcolm McKenzie
Don Basilio: Ashraf Sewailam
Ambrogio: Jonathan Arevalo
Barta: Buffy Braggart
Director: David Bartholomew
Revisiting the three ‘Figaro’ plays by Beaumarchais forever makes one feel young again. The essence of their genius and cultural resonance are the immediacy of characterisation and the fools love makes of us all. Love the great leveler is set into the uncertainty of an old order sitting on the edge of revolution that is already intellectually, socially and economically challenged by the Enlightenment. What Beaumarchais gives us is both sharp satire in which it is the aristocrats can only find their way to love with the inventive assistance of a common barber, Figaro. Yet behind the Topsy-turvy of the ranks and class disordered is universality of love to the human condition. For these men and women in these times its is the one thing – perhaps outside war – that brings peoples of all classes, all places and all times together.
By the time Rossini gets to write his take on the first of the plays the French Revolution has been and gone; Mozart has thrown down the gauntlet with his The Marriage of Figaro which undaunted has been picked up by Marcus Portugal who late in the 1790’s composes his version of the second of the plays. Meanwhile Paisiello – Napoleon Bonaparte\’s favourite composer – has already written a popular version of the first of the plays The Barber of Seville. So with Napoleon also come and gone Rossini turns his hand to the task in 1816. The result is one of the most enduring operas of all time – a masterpiece so beloved it has never fallen out of fashion nor lost its place in the repertoire. Though at its first performance in Rome it was hissed and booed.
Sacramento Opera’s take on the story is safe and conventional in pretty much every sense. The sets are sensible and evocative and uncluttered – though they drew applause from the audience. The singing was business like throughout and the acting played up to the buffo which again the audience generally greatly enjoyed. And like the audience I greatly enjoyed my evening. If opera is to survive as live art and not be squeezed aside by the growing attraction of the Met and other international houses showing their season in cinema theatres then it is vital that smaller companies thrive and are supported by a wider audience. There is also something indefinable about live performance which is both more satisfying and more thrilling than film or TV.
All the principles could act and sing – and more than competently. The music lesson scene opening Act II drew the best from them all individually and collectively. The singing in that long scene was at times quite glorious and the business was sensible and enhanced rather than distracted and detracted.
There is currently a fashion which I have seen for example flourishing at Buxton and English National Opera where directors give an excess of business to the hapless singers who are then so fixated upon doing their stuff and being on the right part of the stage that they cannot relax their voices and inhabit character. And particularly in Act I of This Barber I’m afraid there was a lot of this in evidence. I think it spoiled Almaviva’s first aria – when his high noted seemed to fail him. He has a lovely clear lyrical tenor and later in the performance the upper register was secure. Similarly the business also got in the way of Rosina’s first great scene and aria Una voce poco fa. Sometimes characters entered from one side and exited for no reason from another.
The business of making business got totally out of hand in the Act I quintet when the principles tell us they are frozen in stupefaction and cannot move. In principal making Figaro set them off playing instruments as a small comic orchestra is a good joke. It is just inhabiting the wrong opera and certainly the wrong moment of this opera. Thus when the finale begins with its brilliant octet of total confusion building up to the most frenetic vocal and fantastic orchestral climax – the audience was left bemused as to what exactly had happened and what was meant to be going on in the opera. There is a clear distinction between confused and confusion which in this production became at moments entirely lost.There I’ve said it and there’s no going back.
For the rest Malcolm MacKenzie gave us a great Figaro full of humour and some lovely acting and delightful singing. Leah Wool spun some moments of gold from the production’s occasional straw. In particular in Act II she displayed great vocal technique, a creamy tone and sang artfully. I liked Thomas Glenn’s Almaviva. His voice is a joy when he is relaxed and he really sang the finale of Act II with brio. Stephen Eisenhard produced deftly comic Dr Bartolo and the audience loved him whilst Ashraf Sewailam gave us an effectively characterised and warmly sung Basilio – the rumour aria was just great – but some of the business was distracting. I wish I could say something better of Buffy Baggott’s Berta. Her huge voice at times overpowered the others and this particularly in the finales to Act I and Act II. Her Berta was too much of a Carmen and too little a maidservant. And in her upper register her loud voice became squally. If the director wanted to do better business he might have asked her to restrain her impulse to sing forte because I’m sure it would have made for better music.
But views are entirely my own and the evening was entirely the audience’s. They clapped long and loud. And it was deserved. The cast put in a lot of hard work and it gave all who attended a lot of pleasure. If I was asked I would go again. But though the director’s take on Rossini’s Barber brought many in the audience to their feat; my reservations stand.
Here is an ending of Act I which is fun:Act I Finale – no video I\’m afraid