Opera Review: A Respectful Treatment of ‘Barber of Seville’

  • Cassandra Zoé Velasco plays Rosina in Opera North's production of "The Barber of Seville" at Lebanon Opera House. (Lars Blackmore photograph)

  • Cassandra Zoé Velasco, as Rosina, José Adán Pérez, as Figaro, and César Delgado, as Count Almaviva, appear in scene from Opera North's production of "The Barber of Seville" at Lebanon Opera House. (Lars Blackmore photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, August 09, 2018

A viewer need not have seen many productions of The Barber of Seville to wonder whether Opera North’s take on Gioachino Rossini’s 200 year old classic might be a bit too reverent.

During Sunday’s opening performance in Lebanon Opera House, the audience sat mostly quietly, with occasional applause for the singers, through a first act that passed with only the occasional chuckle of laughter.

It’s not supposed to be this way. The Barber of Seville is meant to be not merely a showcase for great singing, and the singing was indeed excellent on Sunday. It’s also supposed to be laugh-out-loud funny, full of the sort of broad humor that Shakespeare would have recognized. In his program notes, director Evan Pappas writes that for comedy to work, “one has to take it very seriously,” and refers to the intensity of Lucille Ball in the famous chocolate factory scene of her show.

But during the first act, that intensity was present only in fits and starts, and the nearly two hours before the break moved slowly. While the choreography was effective, and at times playful, the action proceeded as if the performers were still working from a script, rather than fully inhabiting their characters without inhibition.

Of the four leads, Count Almaviva (Cesar Delgado), the roguish barber Figaro (Jose Adan Perez), Rosina, the object of Almaviva’s affections (Cassandra Zoe Velasco), and the scheming Dr. Bartolo (Donald Hartmann) who is also Rosina’s guardian, only Hartmann imbues his character with the lively mannerisms behind the lyrics, sung in Italian with English supertitles.

Thankfully, the second act picked up, and a long scene featuring the four main characters had the physical chemistry the show lacked before intermission.

Barber has all the ingredients a comedy needs. Almaviva comes to Seville to court Rosina, which he does in the guise of a poor student, Lindoro, serenading her from the street below. He enlists the aid of Figaro, who boasts that without his intercession, “not one girl in Seville gets married.”

A young nobleman, sick with love, a cunning barber and a woman who, in her introductory cavatina, the classic Una voce poco fa, claims to be outwardly docile, yet says she will become “a viper” if pushed: These sound like the makings of physical comedy. Everyone’s playing a double game and the dialogue includes plenty of witty asides.

But the doubleness of these characters also makes them hard to play, and hard for the audience to read without clear acting to amplify the singing. At one point, late in Act One, the suspicious Dr. Bartolo confronts his ward, whom he wishes to marry himself (for the dowry, we’re told). He calls Rosina “innocent,” but a few lines later notes that she’s “obstinate.” The contradictions are hard to keep up with, and it was very hard to read them in Velasco’s portrayal of Rosina. If she claims to be docile and obedient, shouldn’t she seem so in an exaggeratedly comic way as Bartolo upbraids her? Instead, she seemed petulant, which as any parent of a 4-year-old can tell you isn’t funny.

Dr. Bartolo was the production’s only character who was funny from first to last, in part because he is rather a flatter character. Hartmann’s rounded vowels and slightly adrift body language suggest the wheezing, grasping old dog that Bartolo has become in his dotage.

After the intermission, Almaviva shows up at Bartolo’s house for the second time. (The first time he was disguised as a drunken soldier.) This time he’s a substitute music teacher, Don Alonso, got up in religious garb, and Delgado made the sort of broad, gestural comedy out of the role that was lacking in Act 1. The harpsichord in the background while he’s pretending to give Rosina a music lesson also adds to the comedy, perhaps because the instrument’s fusty seriousness offers a counterpoint to the sight gags.

This production does take Barber seriously, and the fine details show it. The costumes, by Jack Maisenbach, are lovely. (I’m going to put out there a key two-word descriptor for Figaro’s get-up: disco pants.) And when the first set change took place, part-way into Act 1, the audience applauded, so marvelous is set designer Audrey Vuong’s work. And the orchestra, under the direction of Louis Burkot was steady, if not brilliant.

While the singing was uniformly excellent, Cara Collins, a member of Opera North’s group of resident artists, stole most of the scenes she was in, as Berta, Dr. Bartolo’s tipsy housemaid.

As precise and reverent as this production is, it raises the question of whether Opera North could stand to be more daring in staging a work first performed in 1816. A brave failure that takes more liberties with an old chestnut’s time period, costuming and choreography might be more interesting than a successful, period-correct production. This marks the third time Opera North has taken on Barber of Seville since 1995, along with three productions of The Marriage of Figaro, a companion piece drawn from the work of the same writer, Pierre Beaumarchais, but with music by Mozart.

If the Upper Valley is to become, as Evans Haile, Opera North’s general director is fond of saying, a summer destination for the arts, with opera as a prime attraction, perhaps the growing, ambitious company needs to take some chances with its mainstage work.

Opera North’s production of The Barber of Seville continues at Lebanon Opera House with performances tonight at 7:30, Saturday at 2 p.m., and Tuesday night at 7:30. For tickets ($20 to $90) or more information, visit operanorth.org or call the box office at 603-448-0400.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.