Opera Review

Duke Orchestra Teams up with Pros for Semi-Staged Barber

April 8, 2004 - Durham, NC:

In an ambitious attempt to match his Don Giovanni of 2002, Duke Symphony Orchestra's Harry Davidson mounted a semi-staged production of Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia. The town and mostly gown orchestra collaborated with a cast of professional singers to give the production a more polished air, for despite an august tradition of stage business that makes directing the show relatively easy, the singing roles are difficult and the vocal ranges hard to find among students.

The orchestral score is also challenging, and Davidson had clearly drilled his troops in intonation, precise attacks and rapid accompanying figures. Although Duke has a fine music department, it is by no means a conservatory, and most of the players are not going on to careers as professional musicians. Thus, it was a pleasure to hear a collection of around 61 young people who we hope will go on to populate civic orchestras and chamber groups wherever their careers take them. The sixty-second member, while not so young, was CVNC's reviewer, and here guitarist, Jeffrey Rossman, whose dual careers might serve as a role model for the rest of the group.

The cast included one local, the rest imported, talent - mostly from Ohio. While some people regard music critics as a useless lot, we like to think that our rave review of baritone Brian Keith Johnson as Don Giovanni had something to do with Davidson's inviting him back as Figaro. And Johnson certainly didn't disappoint. He has a true comic flair and vocal power to match. While the opera bears his title, it is Count Almaviva (disguised as the student Lindoro) who gets the major chunk of comic business. Tenor Ross Hauck made up for a somewhat reedy sound with tremendous comic energy in his disguises as a drunken soldier and bad-breathed, lisping singing teacher. Janine Porter combined a lovely lyric soprano voice with an appropriately snitty interpretation of Rosina - of course, this role doesn't require much acting; any teenage girl does it naturally with her mother.

World-class basses readily step down from their thrones as Boris Godunov and Philip II just to have the opportunity to sing the relatively minor role of Don Basilio and "La Calunnia" one of the greatest comic arias in the operatic repertory. Bass Ray Liddle's acting was particularly loony - he arrived with an umbrella to weather the storm of  malicious gossip gone out of control. His vocal quality was less noteworthy, most likely because he had to overcome the storm of the orchestra as the aria picked up steam.

And this brings us to the only serious problem with the production, dynamic balance between orchestra and vocalists. Davidson's orchestra was significantly larger than the orchestra Rossini wrote for, and he was able to keep his forces well under control in quiet and less heavily orchestrated passages. But the singers' fortissimi were no match for those of the orchestra. This was particularly noticeable in the finale to Act I, where it was almost impossible to hear the singers; one had to rely on the orchestral doubling to get the melody and harmony. We hope everyone involved reads this review before Saturday's performance so that they can cut back to nothing louder than mezzo forte when someone is singing. The other problem was not a musical one: the missing and mismatched supertitles. That, too, can be fixed before Saturday.

The opera's other major role, Dr. Bartolo, sung by Alfred Anderson, provides another great opportunity for a basso buffo . Anderson rendered his own major aria with its patter-song cabaletta, "Un dottor della mia sorte" (A doctor of my importance), in which he lays down the law to his ward Rosina, in better voice than Liddle but with less comfortable acting. Also stage director for this production, Anderson worked well with the limited space in front of the orchestra. Fortunately, The Barber does not require a fancy set or much space in order to work its comic mischief. The only scene that suffers a bit is the finale to Act 1 where Almaviva's phony military police - here dressed in Duke marching band outfits -; storm into Bartolo's house. Here, more space would allow for more sight gags. Anderson used the old ploy of silly repetition to draw laughs.

In the lesser roles of Bartolo's housekeeper Berta, Mezzo soprano Natalie Havemeyer's acting was a delight, her gestures and face mirroring every ache and grievance of the lowly servant's fate. But her voice, while good, was too dramatic and could not produce enough levity for the role. Baritone Joshua Sekoski had the dual roles as Count Almaviva's servant Fiorello and as the officer in charge of the military police. He was particularly effective in the second role, where he strutted around like a veteran career desk officer. Rossini's "chorus" of two - first as serenaders, later as MPs, included Duke alumnus John Oliver and Clifford Billions.

Once again, Harry Davidson is to be commended for putting together such a delightful performance. He chose well, both with the choice of opera and with the singers. And his mostly youthful orchestra maintained their zest throughout the evening. If you missed Thursday's performance, don't despair. It is to be repeated this Saturday evening at 7:30 PM.