Sunday, July 15, 2018

Getting Down with the Count

ROSSINI’S “THE BARBER OF SEVILLE” is so iconic that you can’t help but collect recordings of it, and I’m most interested in hearing how Figaro fares. Hermann Prey, Robert Merrill, and Sherrill Milnes rank among my favorites, and I’m adding Joshua Hopkins to the list in the hope that he’ll get around to recording it soon. He’s singing the role in the new Glimmerglass Festival production, and from the moment he launches into the famous “Largo al factotum,” we can easily believe that this charismatic fellow can control any situation he puts his hand in.

Joshua Hopkins and Rock Lasky
Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
In this case, he’s asked by Count Almaviva (David Walton), his former employer, to help secure a meeting with the elusive Rosina (Emily D’Angelo), who is being kept a virtual prisoner as the ward of gruff old Dr. Bartolo (Dale Travis). Almaviva doesn’t want her to know his social position lest she should be too attracted by his wealth, so he’s styling himself as a penniless student. But she has a considerable dowry down the pike, which is why Bartolo wants to marry her, so why Almaviva should worry about . . . but there’s no point in letting plot get in the way. This piece is a romp for a sextet of versatile voices, the definition of comic opera at its best.

The opera opens with an overture that has become its own classic, and Festival music director Joseph Colaneri hits it with a Toscanini-like intensity, which is my definition of the best possible performance. There’s little time for breath when the orchestra kicks in, yet Colanari shapes the sound of this tight little group with impressive precision. And when the orchestra is pausing, Christopher Devlin is burning up the keyboard with smooth, witty continuo work.

Walton’s Almaviva is a determined but likeable fellow. He’s immediately thrown into a cavatina, a simple song of adoration for which, according to opera buffa tradition, the singer self-accompanies. It doesn’t matter that he has an instrumental ensemble performing alongside: he’s meant to mime to a guitar. Walton dispenses with the mime portion and actually plays the thing, while singing in an easygoing, effective voice that makes it sound simple – and then he gets to his aria “Se il mio nome” a little later and we discover the richness (and technique) that’s been waiting.

His “Che invenzione” duet with Hopkins sparkled with a refreshing liveliness, and his impersonations of a drunken soldier and, especially, an adenoidal music teacher in Act Three were comic highlights.

This opera traditionally is a scene-stealing contest among the men in the cast, and Tim Bruno, as the amoral Don Basilio, threw down the gauntlet early on with his rendition of “La calunia,” a crescendo of villainy extolling the merits of calumny. He didn’t need assistance from props – but we’ll get to that.

For sheer vocal stamina, Travis wins the day. Bartolo likes to express himself with such fervor that his words fly by at breakneck speed, and Travis kept up the patter long after most mortals would have packed it in.

Joshua Hopkins, Emily D'Angelo,
Timothy Bruno, David Walton, and Dale Travis
Photo: Connor Lange/The Glimmerglass Festival
Rosina, on the other hand, schemes with more beautiful sounds. D’Angelo captivated us with “Una voce poco fa,” of course, but went right on to sow that charm in her duet with Figaro, “Dunque io son,” in which both got to indulge in vocal pyrotechnics while making it seem as natural as possible.

Rossini’s “Barber” is a busy piece, especially when the characters come together in ensemble numbers. Act Two’s finale, “Mi par d’esser con la testa,” is an absolute marvel of tricky comic writing, bringing in the chorus to help the melee, and Act Three’s “La testa vi gira” is a kind of chase that seems to be bringing the lovers together even as a puzzled Basilio is sent from the house. Balance between orchestra and singers was always just right, and no technical challenge failed to be bested.

You won’t mistake this for anything but a comedy. Rossini wrote it that way, and it has picked up performance traditions that ensure the laughs. So it’s puzzling to see a production that clobbers us with superfluous gags. The first sign was, in fact, a sign. “I laugh at everything in order not to cry,” a quote from Beaumarchais, who wrote the play upon which the opera is based. But it – and the excess of signage that plagued the piece – fell victim to the Goofy Typeface Phenomenon, in which a wacky array of letters sledgehammers home the point that this is supposed to be funny.

Each in the chorus was dressed in Pulcinella gown and mask, topped with a tall sugar-loaf hat. This I can deal with (it’s still not necessary), but to have them prance – courbette, really, like Lippizaners – was a bit much. It seemed like a different show when the chorus intruded, especially when wielding their over-exaggerated props. It got laughs, but too many of those laughs were at the expense of a story that by now has a fragile reality.

Yet the music endures, and invites a singer’s best – and these are some of the best singers you’re going to hear in it. Performances continue at the Glimmerglass Festival through August 25, 2018.

The Barber of Seville
Music by Gioachino Rossini
Libretto by Cesare Sterbini
Conducted by Joseph Colaneri
Directed by Francesca Zambello
The Glimmerglass Festival, Cooperstown, NY
Alice Busch Opera Theater, July 14, 2018

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