Asheville Lyric Opera, under the artistic direction of David Craig Starkey, opens its 16th season Friday in Diana Wortham Theatre with Rossini's comic classic Il Barbiere di Siviglia. One of the staples of the operatic bel canto literature, the show features an intriguing array of character types which manage to get themselves into and out a tangle of ridiculous and often compromising situations. The fast pace of the action is the result of Jon Truitt's excellent direction, with Conductor Dan Alcott driving the action with his energized and precise control of the orchestra pit. The set designs by Kyra Bishop evoke the real appearance of Seville with its arched windows and passageways and its use of blue and yellow patterned tilework. The production, sung in Italian with English supertitles, is dedicated to the memory of Henry Janiec, founder of the opera company that now bears his name at Brevard Music Center.
There are many reasons why the production is compelling, chief among them is a uniformly strong cast that can both really sing and really act. Cast as the female lead is Regina Davis (Rosina), who was born and raised in Western North Carolina and who now sings professionally in the Netherlands. Todd Barnhill (Count Almaviva) also received his start in North Carolina, having earned his Bachelor's degree from East Carolina University. José Rubio in the title role of Figaro has sung with numerous opera companies in the U.S. and abroad. Like Rubio, Adrian Smith (Don Basilio) has performed extensively in opera houses and on concert stages, and Timothy LaFontaine's (Dr. Bartolo) experiences have encompassed opera, oratorio, and concert appearances. Many of these singers have garnered acclaim for their portrayal of these very roles.
Rossini's opera is – well, silly. The music frequently falls into patterns of repetitions that can drive one mad (perhaps that's the point?). The characters' stage movements help mitigate this by always providing something to catch the eye as those same phrases are repeated over and over. The singers use facial expressions to a great degree for maximum comic effect. The general impression was that the cast took the comedic elements and played them for all they were worth.
And while the music and buffoonery went hand in hand, there were many, many moments where the scurrying ceased and the characters took center stage with magnificent performances of arias that are the stuff of legend. In Act I, for example, we met Figaro whose bustling "Largo al factotum" began off-stage, implying he was always at work behind the scenes as well as in plain sight. We met Rosina at the opening of Act II, whose "Una voce poco fa" is one of the show's great display pieces, and Davis's sure-fire coloratura was as musical as it was thrilling to hear. Likewise, Smith's Basilio was charming in "La calunnia è un venticello" and LaFontaine's rendition of "A un dottor della mia sorte" was a fine characterization of the over-protective guardian. The ensemble singing was excellent, even when accompanying frenetic chase scenes when passions erupted. The small band of chorus members who played the parts of street serenaders and soldiers added a great deal to the fun.
In addition to the fine blocking, there was excellent timing of exchanges, entrances and exits – so important to making comedy work. The quality of the delivery of the recitatives was exceptional; as expertly accompanied by Vance Reese, these passages sounded so much like natural speech that one could easily forget the characters were "conversing" in Italian and not English. Reese also played a baritone ukulele from the pit during several numbers calling for a guitar accompaniment. There were wonderful lighting effects, especially of the storm in the final act. One minor reservation was that the supertitles weren't always in sync with the dialog onstage. Other than that, this production was a great triumph for each singer and for the Asheville Lyric Opera.