Can there be anyone anywhere who, hearing the opening strains of The Barber of Seville, doesn't think of the Warner Brothers cartoon classic featuring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd? Yes, that's right – that one, "The Rabbit of Seville."
There was neither wildlife nor lisping hunter in pursuit at Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium on the afternoon of June 4, but the Opera Company of North Carolina made certain that the expected comical hi-jinks – and high vocal standards, too, of course – were abundantly on display in their production of Rossini's operatic masterpiece.
This famous score, a fine introductory work for those "testing" operatic waters for the first time, centers on the famously wily machinations and tomfoolery of the Spanish jack-of-all-trades, Figaro, presented as sort of a "Man Behaving Badly," 19th-century style. But this character is, all the same, remarkable for his quicksilver mind, mercurial wit, and resourcefulness in a tough situation, all of which are perfectly set by the composer and – on this occasion – were generously translated by OCNC's artistic director Robert Galbraith for local audiences.
Galbraith's rabbit-in-the-hat (pun intended) turned out to be no more than several by now known and time-tested Rossinian stage tableaux. Anyone familiar with modern-day Rossini productions wouldn't have been surprised to witness a slow-motion Act I finale complete with strobe light, as the lead singers and chorus members darted to and fro, picking up the action each time the musical crescendo (a Rossini signature item) died down. Neither was it unexpected, in the second act, to watch as the old doctor's house turned around, inside-out and back again, showing the storm outside and the leaking roof to be managed within, the servants running around with buckets strategically placed around the room.
Even for all of this, one must have a vocally nimble and, where possible, physically limber Figaro at the center of things. It is his opera, after all, as he tells the audience at his first entrance (you know, "Figaro, Figaro, Figaro!"). Suddenly appearing in the orchestra section of the hall, baritone Lucas Meachem made it immediately clear that he indeed had the full measure of this multifaceted role within his grasp. Galbraith scored a terrific coup here, for Meachem's virile and charming stage presence, mellifluous voice, and athletic acting abilities must count the young singer one of this director's strongest casting decisions to date.
Although common at one time, rarely anymore does one witness an artist who lights up the stage at each appearance or who embodies a part so perfectly as Meachem did – a case of a singer and role being flawlessly matched to one another.
The other members of the cast may not have been as ideally suited to their respective assignments, but nearly everyone turned in work to be proud of. Tenor Jeffrey Picon, while not really sounding like a traditional "Rossini tenor," nonetheless warmed-up into a performance of some vocal beauty. The lower-voices – bass-baritones William Powers (Dr. Bartolo) and Uwe Dambruch (Basilio) – restrained from overdoing the comic shtick, a common problem in this opera, allowing their acting to dictate where they went vocally.
Wade Henderson (Fiorello), Ellen Williams (a delightfully decadent Berta), and Fred Gorelick (Ambrogio) contributed character portraits to match the leading artists' contributions, ever mindful to complement rather than overshadow them.
The role of Rosina is, alas, a complicated one. Rossini wrote it for his wife, the celebrated coloratura mezzo-soprano Isabella Colbran, though it exists in a higher-flying version for coloratura soprano. Lucy Tucker Yates, OCNC's Rosina of choice, seemed to be neither, though her repertoire sheet indicates that she could have exercised more than she ultimately did of the fanciful flights in the higher version of this role. Falling somewhere between the various lower and higher musical options, she growled inaudibly a bit of the time, wavered and flirted with pitch, and seemed generally uncomfortable with her part in the proceedings. More's the pity, for she should have scored a personal success with this part.
Conductor Jeffrey Pollock, formerly of the N.C. Symphony and now Associate Conductor of the Ft. Worth Symphony, led an at times lifeless reading of the score, dragging his feet where sparkle was called for, though finally picking up in momentum as the afternoon wore on. The talented pick-up orchestra, composed of some of the Triangle's finest musicians, played effervescently when allowed to, accompanying the on-stage antics with musical commentary that was frequently spot-on. Under a conductor possessing more knowledge of stagecraft, their performance would most likely have been more valuable.
The Opera Company of North Carolina has once again – a few quibbles aside – lived up to its billing as "the resonant voice" for opera in this area. Galbraith and his organization should be congratulated for another fine effort, introducing young and old to quality opera otherwise unavailable here.
Even so, I would have enjoyed seeing Bugs and Elmer chase each other around the stage a few times....