The Barber of Seville of Gioacchino Rossini might almost be said to be the quintessential comic opera, such a fundamental part of the canon that even those who know no other opera, or indeed any classical music at all, can still sing “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro!" with no idea who Figaro is, what he does, or which opera the music is from. And any American of a certain age will associate the tunes from the famous overture with the Bugs Bunny short “What’s Opera, Doc?” Circumstances conspired to cause me to journey to the Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts for the closing night of three for the Piedmont Opera’s production of this masterpiece.
The Piedmont Opera has the happy good fortune of being able to take advantage of the orchestral forces of the Winston-Salem Symphony in the orchestra pit, so the overture prepared the excited listeners (an audience more diverse in terms of both age and any other characteristic you might name than any other I have seen in North Carolina for classical music, and filling the house) for a evening on a high level.
Before moving further into the (not-so-complicated) plot, it’s worth giving a little historical context about its sources (something entirely omitted by the otherwise capacious booklet, with no information either about Rossini, or the sources for his libretto). Both Rossini’s Barber and Mozart’s Figaro feature Count Almaviva and Figaro; they are based on a series of plays by a French social climber, Pierre Beaumarchais, who scrabbled his way into the upper class under the old régime, so that the wit, ceaseless energy and lust for money of the barber Figaro come directly from the playwright’s own life. In the first of the three plays, the Barber of Seville, which premiered in 1775, Figaro helps pry the young Rosina away from her ward, Doctor Bartolo, so she can marry Count Almaviva (a considerable step upwards from the social milieu of everyone else in the play). The second of the three plays, ready for production by 1781, but only premiered in 1784 due to censorship, is the source for Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, which premiered in 1786. Here, Figaro himself is ready to marry, but must protect his fiancée from the now-roving eye of the Count. (The third play, The Guilty Mother, seems never to have been adapted for the operatic stage until the twentieth century).
It is striking that, in contrast to the situation in Mozart’s Magic Flute, for example, where the libretto provides matching male/female pairs that are equal in social status - Sarastro/Queen of the Night, Tamino/Pamina (noble), Papageno/Papagena (plebeian) – in the Barber Count Almaviva is clearly the only member of the nobility. And perhaps for this reason, the very first character who appears on stage is his servant, Fiorello, with a crew of serenading musicians (of the lowest social standing). Basso David Weigel (Fiorello) has a fine instrument, but both his singing, which could sound more natural and relaxed, and his acting, lacking the direction that could have made it a more comic turn, have further to develop. Victor Ryan Robertson’s Count Almaviva, in contrast, displayed a finely produced light tenor, and Rossini’s writing underscores the aristocratic nature of the character with the highly ornamented fioriture of his first solo, the serenade under Rosina’s balcony. This writing is high, detailed, and difficult, and yet it must sound effortless. Robertson carried it off with aplomb.
As the evening goes on Robertson showed a real comic talent, both physically and vocally, when he appears in disguise in Act II as Don Alonso, a fictitious voice teacher. Markus Beam (Figaro) arrives on stage with his charm and star power turned up to the max, something emphasized by the spotlight which welcomes him; Beam makes the part entirely his own, vocally compelling and persuasive; one can easily believe, with Count Almaviva, that this schemer has the solution to every problem. They make a wonderful pair on stage (and lead one to think of the “dark” version of such seductive power – the pairing of Don Giovanni and Leporello). Leah Wool’s (Rosina) “Una voce poco fa” (one of the most popular numbers from the opera, and with good reason) showed off the proverbial fist of iron inside the silk glove, combining a winning manner, a beautiful tone, and complete control of the coloratura. Rossini demonstrates musically from the outset that she is ready to move up into the nobility. Kevin Glavin (Dr. Bartolo) and Brian Banion (Don Basilio) both demonstrated musical mastery combined with brilliant comic appeal; the speed of the patter-song delivered by Bartolo took one’s breath and was particularly surprising given what we had seen of the character up to that point. Banion has a particularly attractive deep bass with a volume and depth that we only got a glimpse of in this comic part – I could well imagine him as a dramatic lead in a tragic opera. Completing the cast was Rebecca Shorstein as the servant Berta, whose pratfall (she takes a door right in the face, and falls down, knocked out) both amused and shocked the entire audience.
Plaudits go to James Allbritten, the conductor and artistic director, who brought out all the brilliance and wit in this opera, and that’s saying a lot. This was a production that showed just how energizing, compelling, and broadly appealing an opera can be. Bravo!