Some of the hottest tickets in town during the Brevard Music Center's season are those to the operas by the Janiec Opera Company. David Gately, Director, and Ken Lam, Conductor of the Brevard Festival Orchestra, and cast have cooked up one of the most engaging productions of The Barber of Seville I've seen. There are only four staged productions — Dialogues of the Carmelites, H.M.S. Pinafore, La bohème, and Rossini's The Barber of Seville, and the venues (either the Scott Concert Hall of the Porter Center for the Performing Arts or the Morrison Playhouse, both at Brevard College) don't seem large enough to satisfy demand. This is a nice problem to have, and true to recent trends, The Barber of Seville opened to a sold-out house.
The cast featured an irrepressible Keith Browning in the title role of Figaro (barber and master prankster), Garry McLinn (Count Almaviva), Melissa Fajardo (Rosina, Bartolo's ward), Evan Ross (Doctor Bartolo), David Weigel (Don Basilio, a singing teacher), Devon Chandler (Berta, Rosina's governess), Ronald Wilbur (Fiorello, servant to the Count/The Officer), and Dean Anthony (Ambrogio, servant to the doctor). The roles of Rosina, Almaviva and Don Basilio will be sung by a different cast on the repeat performance July 7. The opera is sung in Italian with English supertitles.
The production staff has worked their magic to create an enchanting illusion of old Seville. Scenic designer Evan F. Adamson's sets were changed quickly and effortlessly without compromising the dramatic pace — only a stuck door here and there gave characters a momentary pause. Other designers were Kate Bashore (lighting), Glenn Avery Breed (costumes), Necole E. Bluhm (wigs and make-up), and Heather Mallory (sound).
Rossini had been composing operas since around 1810, but it would be six more years before he composed his comic masterpiece Alamaviva, ossia L'inutile precauzione (Almaviva, or The Futile Precaution). Based on Beaumarchais's play Le barbier de Séville, Rossini chose a different title to distinguish it from Giovanni Paisiello's opera Il barbiere di Siviglia then running in Rome. (The title would change to Il barbiere di Siviglia by which it is known today with a change of performance venue to Bologna.) To essentially the same plot, his librettist Cesare Sterbini composed a new text which adds roles for a chorus and a nice aria in Act II for the tottering old servant Berta. Once the politics of competing composers were resolved, the opera assumed its place in the lexicon as one of the great masterpieces of all time.
And yet, bringing it to life on the stage is not necessarily a shoo-in. For all of Rossini's innovations — sectionalized arias and rousing ensemble finales to each act — the opera may still sound a bit "dated" to modern ears with its secco recitatives and within its lyrical numbers, endless formulaic phrase repetitions, especially on the micro-level (which is perhaps why it's perfect fodder for cartoons). This is most notable in Act I when Rossini is introducing his characters, something that becomes less tedious as the plot gains momentum and dramatic interest builds. The company kept things lively by their stage movements and comic gestures, both large and small. The attention to the dramatic as well as musical craft was meticulous and consistent throughout the evening. The use of freeze-frame and slow-motion techniques at key moments was brilliant, with the choice of the latter for the fight scene ending of Act I resulting in one of the funniest scenes I've ever witnessed.
The singing was remarkable by every measure — the bel canto roulades, improvised ornaments, and astonishingly clear declamation in the breathless "Rossini" patter songs that are a cornerstone of the comedy. Maestro Lam kept the action moving forward with a fine orchestral/vocal balance and, above all, an incredible matching of instrumental bowings to vocal utterances. It was incredibly hard work, and yet was made to sound so easy — the hallmark of a truly professional performance.