Wit leads the way
in SFO's 'Barber'
by Jason Victor Serinus
No amount of familiarity can dim Rossini's wonderful succession of fabulous tunes and droll ensembles in Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville). If director Emilio Sagi's delightful new production, which San Francisco Opera premiered at the War Memorial Opera House last week, doesn't convince even the most jaded amongst us that Rossini and his librettist, Sterbini, knew how to play comedy to the hilt, nothing will.
Central to the production's success are the almost uniformly excellent cast and the superb playing of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra under the ever-alert baton of Resident Conductor Giuseppe Finzi. Especially notable, on the orchestral end, are the additional silkiness that the raised pit brings to the strings; Bryndon Hassman and Finzi's droll, improvisatory fortepiano and harpsichord commentary during recitatives; and the sheer verve of the playing.
Performed on Llorenc Corbella's bright-white set, onto which he, Sagi, and costume designer Pepa Ojanguren progressively inject color as the plot unfolds, the production relies as much on the gifts of the musicians as on a magician's grab-bag of props, shtick, and tricks. Sagi doesn't take advantage of Rossini's intentionally metronomic ending of Act I, which begs for special treatment, but elsewhere, he's all for having as much fun as possible. No one pulls a rabbit out of a hat, but some of the effects and certainly the ending may convince you that in the Barber's district of Rossiniville, July 4 is celebrated 365 days per year.
The production's first cast, which returns Nov. 22 & 26 and closes the run Dec. 1, is filled with top-flight singers. Chief among them is one of San Francisco's favorite Merola/Adler vets done good, baritone Lucas Meachem (Figaro). Not only is he able to direct his large, exceptionally handsome voice through Rossini's challenging coloratura runs, but he also proves the master of the changes of color and shading that are the hallmark of bel canto singing. Meachem's is a Figaro to love.
Although his voice is one size smaller, debuting Mexican tenor Javier Camarena (Count Almaviva) is every bit Meachem's equal when it comes to bel canto shading and vocal beauty. He may not have a particularly brilliant sound nor a trill worth speaking of, but when he pares his voice down to a soft caress, it's hard not to join Rosina in melting. The astounding coloratura of Camarena's final aria and cabaletta, "Cessa di piu resistere, Ah il più lieto" ("Give up your resistance, Ah, of all loving hearts"), which is often cut due to its difficulty, left us cheering.
Less subtle, as befits their characters, but equally superb were veteran Italian bass-baritone Alessandro Corbelli (Doctor Bartolo) and bass Andrea Silvestrelli (Don Basilio). Corbelli sings with the strength and steadiness of someone far younger, and manages to deploy every gesture and facial grimace in his arsenal without seeming stock. The cavernous-voiced Silvestrelli, whose sound is as distinctive as that of two of SFO's most distinguished early Basilios, Marcel Journet and Ezio Pinza, may not seem tailor-made for comedy, but his curly mop and quizzical expression are a delight.
Which leaves, among principals, the San Francisco Opera debut of Isabel Leonard (Rosina). Although exceptionally gifted, both vocally and physically – she's a real beauty, with a smile that could melt many a hard heart, and her voice has substance, flexibility, and a fine if not particularly ravishing top – Leonard sings with one-size-fits-all coloration. Rosina is far more than Bartolo's sweet innocent captive – she's also a major flirt, sly, and viperous when need be – but Leonard's voice hardly hints at such complexity. Hers is a fine performance, but not, at this stage, a great one.
Greatness, on the other hand, may become young baritone Ao Li's (Fiorello) middle name. The 2013 Operalia Competition winner and the third-year Adler Fellow opened the opera with such a handsome sound, and so lively a performance, as to virtually guarantee future triumphs. Equally excellent was SFO's most beloved character mezzo, Catherine Cook (Berta). Her technique may have required Finzi to slow the pace a bit, but her voice and energy were as lovable as ever. In smaller roles, Adler Fellows A.J. Glueckert (Ambrogio) and Hadleigh Adams (an officer) dispatched their small roles with aplomb, with Glueckert showing a fine gift for character.
Although I couldn't catch the second cast (Nov. 23 & 29) by press time, I wouldn't discount the potential chemistry between the husband-wife team of tenor Alek Shrader (Count Almaviva) and Argentinean mezzo-soprano Daniella Mack (Rosina). Equally exciting are the SFO debut of Maurizio Muraro (Doctor Bartolo) and U.S. debut of Audun Iversen (Figaro). Given the delights of production and music, I'm looking forward to seeing them on Nov. 23, and sharing my observations at ebar.com.