Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” pops off like a cork from a bottle of champagne, and bubbles up into intrigue, farce and frenzy before ending in marriage.
The intrigue is between Count Almaviva (disguised as the student Lindoro) and Rosina, whom he courts against the wishes of her guardian, Don Bartolo, who plans to marry her himself. The farce is in the complications which ensue as Almaviva and Rosina are assisted by Figaro, the town factotum and barber, in plotting against Don Bartolo. The frenzy is in the uproarious sextet and chorus which concludes Act One, in which the music is passed from singer to singer like a hot potato, in that blend of high spirits and fizzling malice which is Rossini’s alone.
Opera Carolina’s production is especially well-cast. Pride of place goes to Kathryn Lewek, whose singing in the title role of Opera Carolina’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” a few years ago was astonishing. Her performance of Rosina is equally remarkable, taking the hurdles of her part – the high notes, the wickedly difficult fioratura – with a bold delight in the risks taken. Her understanding of the bel canto style is superb, and she gave her role a quality of discovery hard to imagine for such a well-known – even hackneyed – a part as Rosina.
Neither Hyung Yun as Figaro or Victor Ryan Robertson as Almaviva were on this exalted level, though both were quite good. Hyung Yun has a lovely voice, virile, agile, and big, but has a curious inability to sit upon the saddle of his part and ride it. His Figaro would have been much better if he were less stagy and self-concious, and more relaxed.
Victor Ryan Robertson was a sexy Count Almaviva, who played his part with ardor and Rossinian wit, but he doesn’t have the bel canto style quite under his belt – its extravagances have not become natural to him – though this was more noticeable at the beginning of Act One than later.
Steven Condy’s Dr. Bartolo was a traditional portrait of an old buffoon from commedia della’arte, sung with panache. I would like to hear his Falstaff. Kevin Langan, who played the music master, Don Basilio, sang his “Calumny” aria, about the uses of slander, with leering self-regard. Pamela Williamson, who played the old servant, Berta, made her little aria about growing too old for love unexpectedly poignant.
The problem with this production was that the stage business was too broad for wit. Don Bartolo is a lecherous old fellow – and Steven Condy conveyed his menace well – but this was undermined when he was twitted like Elmer Fudd into taking a number of absurd poses by Rosina during the music lesson scene. People don’t act this way – cartoons do. This was one of many instances where the action was so antic that it amounted to not trusting the music, which is where the real humor is. The thin line between character type and caricature was crossed too often. It made a delicious comedy into slapstick.
The great septet and chorus which ends Act One employed a slow-motion crowd choreography in which (among many other things) a servant girl rides on Don Bartolo’s back – he is on all fours. This was done, moreover, under red stage lights, which gave a macabre effect to these bizarre proceedings.
It was glib. This great set piece requires feats of timing to carry off.
The chorus managed marvelously, despite this. In the pit, James Meena’s conducting was as stylish as Lewek’s singing was onstage. It would have been a wonderful production if these standards were maintained throughout. As it was, this opera buffa became opera boffo, though it would be a shame to miss a performer of Kathryn Lewek’s stature.