Arts & Events

New: Rossini’s BARBER OF SEVILLE at S.F. Opera

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday November 30, 2015 - 03:16:00 PM

Gioachino Rossini’s comic-opera Il Barbiere di Siviglia is universally hailed as Rossini’s masterpiece, and the public acclaim accorded this opera overshadows Rossini’s other noteworthy accomplishments, both in comic-opera and opera seria. Perhaps the popularity of Il Barbiere di Siviglia is what persuaded San Francisco Opera’s General Director David Gockley to revive this work just two years after a new production opened here in Fall 2013. Much remains the same now as in that earlier production. Many cast members have returned, although in 2013 this sparkling production featured alternating casts, while the current Barber of Seville is content with a single cast for all performances.  

Let’s start with the principal singers. In 2013 baritone Lucas Meachem sang the role of Figaro in the first cast and was replaced in the second cast by Norwegian baritone Audun Iversen. In the current production Lucas Meachem sings all five Figaros, and this is a plus, for his robust performance is riveting. His voice, while not always powerful in the lower range, is always gripping in the high notes. In 2013 mezzo-soprano Isobel Leonard sang the role of Rosina in the first cast, and she was paired with young Mexican tenor Javier Camarena as Count Almaviva. That was an inspired pairing, for these two singers were outstanding. Isobel Leonard is perhaps the most exquisitely expressive opera singer in the world today, both vocally and dramatically. One simply can’t take one’s eyes off her whenever she is onstage, for she is not only beautiful but is always doing something interesting with her interpretation of a given role. Isobel Leonard is without a doubt the finest Rosina I’ve heard other than the great Theresa Berganza, whom I heard here in this role back in 1968. As for Javier Camarena, his local debut in 2013 was absolutely sensational. Here was a young singer on the brink of what will surely be a star-quality career.  

In the current S.F. Opera Barber of Seville, the role of Rosina is sung by mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, who sang this role in 2013’s second cast; and Almaviva role is now sung by René Barbera. In the Sunday matinee I attended on November 29, Daniela Mack handled Rossini’s coloratura passages with aplomb, and her voice packed plenty of power in the upper range, although her chest tones often sounded smothered. For his part, René Barbera got off to a slightly slow start but came on strong in Act II, in which he included the often-cut aria “Cessa di più resistere,” (as did Camerna in 2013). As I noted of Barbera’s performance last Fall in Rossini’s La Cenerentola (see the Nov. 14, 2014 issue of this paper), René Barbera’s head-tones are a bit sharp-edged. But this comes with the turf in Rossini’s writing for the tenor voice. In any case, Barbera’s singing in Act II of this year’s Barber of Seville was powerful and passionate, though I’ll still take Javier Camarena’s Almaviva over René Barbera’s, and Isobel Leonard’s Rosina over Daniela Mack’s. 

Doctor Bartolo is not exactly a secondary character, for he features prominently in a role straight out of commedia dell’arte as an aging codger who foolishly aspires to marry his young and pretty ward, Rosina. However, as portrayed by Italian baritone Alessandro Corbelli, who also sang this role in 2013, Doctor Bartolo is such a figure of ridicule that he is easily dismissed, both vocally and dramatically. On the other hand, the relatively minor role of Don Basilio is here sung so splendidly by the stentorian bass Andrea Silvestrelli, who sang the same role in 2013, that this character surprisingly stands out. Given the athleticism of Silvestrelli’s bass voice, his famous aria, “La Calunnia,” is here even transposed a whole step down from its original. Likewise, the role of Berta, a maidservant of Doctor Bartolo and secret supporter of Rosina, is here reprised from 2013 by the veteran mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook, who shone in her aria di sorbetto, or ‘sherbert aria’, (an Italian commercial break), “Che cosa é questo amore.”  

Where the staging is concerned, director Emilio Sagi has emphasized the Spanish quality of the story, portraying Seville as a sun-drenched Andalusian city full of men and women who move with the fire and intensity of flamenco dancers. In the opening scenes of Act I, this flamenco-like posturing may even seem excessive; but we accept it as a potentially valid approach. When dancers keep on intervening throughout the opera to accentuate the Spanishness of the action, how-ever, we may find the staging a bit over the top, which it is. In earlier stagings produced here, director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle also managed to emphasize the Spanish setting of this opera; but he did so without going completely overboard, as in this production. In this revival of Emilio Sagi’s original staging, director Ray Rallo has even added to the Spanish touches, and these additions are always a bit more exaggerated than in the 2013 original. Is this embroidery an improvement or a drawback? I don’t have an answer, but the fact that the question arises says much. Conductor Giuseppe Finzi, who also led the 2013 premiere performances, kept the opera moving at a suitably brisk pace, while attentive to details along the way. 

Several minor characters deserve notice. Baritone Edward Nelson sang the role of Fiorello, who appears so prominently in the opera’s first scene, then myster-iously disappears henceforth. Baritone Efraín Solís ably sang the role of Ambrogio, a servant of Doctor Bartolo’s who is enamored of his fellow-servant Berta. Matthew Stump, a bass-baritone, notably sang the role of a military officer who is drawn to intervene at the moment a furor occurs when Almaviva’s disguise as a humble student, Lindoro, threatens to destroy the carefully laid plans of Figaro and Almaviva. 

All told, the wit and musical agility of Rossini the composer make Il Barbiere di Siviglia the perennial favorite that it is. And this is as it should be. The sheer ebullience of this opera is astonishing, even today when we’ve had the opportunity to hear it over and over again. Viva Rossini!