Pittsburgh Opera gave the first of four performances of Gioachino Rossini’s perennial The Barber of Seville Saturday night. The work is probably the most enduring of the composer’s 39 operas, and anyone who has seen vintage Warner Brothers’ cartoons or TV commercials over the years has heard snatches of its melodious strains. Composed to a libretto written by Cesare Sterbini, Il barbiere di Siviglia is an Italian “opera buffa,” or comic opera, adapted from Pierre Beaumarchais’s 1775 French stage comedy Le Barbier de Séville. The play was the first in Beaumarchais’s trilogy of “Figaro” works. Years earlier Da Ponte and Mozart had used the second for their Le Nozze di Figaro (“The Marriage of Figaro”). The third play, La Mére coupable (“The Guilty Mother”), has been adapted to opera no less than three times, the first attempt made as recently as 1966 and the last in 2010, but never with any measurable or enduring success.
The Barber of Seville, under the working-title of Almaviva, ossia L’inutile precauzione (“Almaviva, or the Futile Precaution”) premiered on February 20, 1816, at the Teatro Argentina, Rome, and was nearly hissed and booed off the stage, thanks mainly to the house being well padded with admirers of “lesser light” composers who considered – rightly – Rossini to be a far more gifted threat to the success of their favorites. Yet two centuries later, it remains a popular draw. The audience was probably the largest that has packed into the Benedum for an opening night since the 2015-’16 productions began last October.
Some opera historians claim The Barber of Seville as the first opera ever produced in America. It appears that then, as now, if it didn’t first happen in New York, it didn’t happen. It was indeed the first opera New Yorkers heard in Italian, when Manuel Garcia’s troupe braved the Atlantic in 1825 and produced it for their opening night at the Park Theatre, but it (and other operas) had been heard in Italian, French and English translations in New Orleans, Philadelphia and elsewhere for a number of years previous to the Italian troupe’s season.
The Barber of Seville brims with colorful characters, “catchy” tunes, difficult arias that allow the lead singers to display their skills, a marvelous overture, a libretto that teems with the mistaken identities and scheming young lovers so popular in the earlier days of the lyric stage – all of the ingredients that seemingly would put it at the bottom of the pile when a director is looking for an opera in need of an overhaul, especially in a city that produces less than a dozen in the average course of a calendar year. But the setting of the opera was transported to an Italian speaking (or rather, singing) Hollywood movie studio of the 1940s (or ‘30s) just the same; in fairness, possibly because the work has been done here so often. Rossini’s Dr. Bartolo seems to have shut down his medical practice to become a film producer, and his ward, Rosina, has become his closely monitored, budding contract starlet, whom the old man hopes to marry. Figaro has given up his barbershop to become a studio hair and make-up designer, thoroughly “in the know” of the latest Hollywood gossip and scandals. Count Almaviva is here a star-struck young man of many disguises, but just as enamored of Rosina as he was back in Spain. Don Basilio, Rosina’s music teacher, is now the studio’s musical director, etc. Adding to the incongruity of the revision is the fact that despite their new location and occupations, the characters retain their “titles,” if they had one in the old days of Seville.
The two acts are cluttered with a conglomeration of drops and accessories that give the impression that everything in the Benedum’s cellar was hauled out of storage and crammed onto the stage so long as it didn’t interfere with Rosina’s dressing room, which is perched precariously high on a foundation of wooden beams nailed into every possible direction. There may have been some in the immense audience who found this all in keeping with the general zaniness of the atmosphere, but from many conversations overheard during the intermission between the two acts, they kept their opinions to themselves. There were probably few in the crowd, however, who weren’t impressed by the clever lighting and sound effects that provided a most realistic thunderstorm in the second act. Two ponderous bulldogs waddled nonchalantly across the stage on a few occasions, and were a charming delight each time.
It is tremendously fortunate that the production features a highly talented and very attractive cast on the stage, and a true maestro and wonderful orchestra in the pit. Conductor Antony Walker, as usual, gave a masterly reading of the score, and his skilled instrumentalists filled the auditorium with music that was well balanced, nuanced and truly lovely. Next to the one he wrote for William Tell, the overture Rossini composed for this work is perhaps his finest. Yet only a few minutes of it were enjoyed before the curtain went up on the peculiar staging and a huge number of supernumeraries and principals rushing about in mute “business” that added nothing other than a distraction from concentrating on the sparkling, vivacious music. Aside from this one disappointment, the orchestra was on display at its very best throughout.
Only a few weeks ago the announcement was made that the singer originally slated for the crucial role of Rosina was bowing out due to “personal reasons.” It says a great deal for the resources of Pittsburgh Opera that the company has on hand a resident artist as talented as Corrie Stallings to fill the breach at such short notice. Her performance was so enchanting that had the most famous mezzo-soprano in the world been originally scheduled to sing the part, she would scarcely have been missed. Ms. Stallings’ talents are already well known to local opera habitués, but Saturday night she gave undoubtedly the best exhibition of her art that has been heard and seen to date. Her singing and acting of the role were those of a seasoned performer who knows her part inside and out, and if she has been studying the character with an eye on singing Rosina at some future date, she has more than fulfilled her ambition. If she accomplished all she did with just weeks to prepare, it seems hardly possible that she could have honed the role to such a perfected state. Either way, this lovely and gifted young woman was a delight to see and hear, no mere substitute, but a star in her own right. It will be a great loss to the company when she moves on to the Santa Fe Opera this summer, and it can only be hoped that she will return in future productions.
Kevin Glavin, in the role Bartolo, returned for his 41st appearance with Pittsburgh Opera, his first dating back to 1985. The seasoned basso was a comedic delight, and his voice remains one of great strength and quality. Since liberties were taken even with the libretto, at one point he was subjected to singing of his dislike of “modern” music, and his preference for “Dino Martino” singing “Volare.” Since “Dino” didn’t record that song for years after the era in which the production was set, it proved a bit of a cringe-worthy moment. But no such awkward spot could dampen the artistry of the truly gifted veteran.
Brain Vu, in the small role of Fiorello, made his strong baritone audible in even the largest ensembles, which is no small accomplishment for deeper-voiced singers. Claudia Rosenthal, an amusing Berta, made the most of her opportunity in the second act, pouring out her aria with more volume and vehemence than is customary, but she sang and acted the small part in high spirits. Bill Ivins, as Ambrogio and Jesse Davis, as “An Officer,” filled the other minor roles acceptably.
Jonathan Beyer, a former resident artist with the company, returned in the role of Figaro. It’s a daunting one, in that Rossini requires the baritone to “hit the ground running,” as it were, by tossing off the extraordinarily difficult and famous “Largo al factotum” aria the moment he appears on the scene, with no opportunity to warm up the voice. Beyer is no stranger to the role, having sung it in Boston, St. Louis, Bari (Italy) and elsewhere in recent years, but a hint of caution was understandably detectable in the opening measures. He quickly gained confidence, and gave a well-studied and comic interpretation of the part, occasionally lacking in volume, but as a whole his performance was a worthy one. Brandon Cedel made his company debut as Don Basilio. Spending a good portion of the opera dressed as Harpo Marx, the comic element of the not especially grateful part at times seemed a bit forced, and his voice is heavier and darker than the music requires.
Michele Angelini sang for the first time in Pittsburgh in the effervescent and technically difficult role of Count Almaviva. A lyric tenor voice more capable of producing tones of such velvety beauty has probably never been heard in this city within living memory. He is clearly a well-schooled young man of extraordinary musical intelligence, with innate artistic gifts of abundant quality and quantity. From the moment he appeared and began to sing, he dominated the performance with the greatest of eloquence. Suavity, gracefulness and astonishing flexibility of voice flowed from him with the greatest of ease, supported by seemingly effortless, endless breath control. The exceptionally talented singing actor sailed through the role with an enchanting comic flair and an appealing stage presence that even the scene in which he, too, was dressed as Harpo Marx could not disguise. It can only be hoped that he will return in the future, but since his schedule is crammed with appearances in England, Italy, Belgium, Sweden and elsewhere, as well as an upcoming debut at the Metropolitan Opera, it seems unfortunately unlikely that he will grace the Benedum stage with his presence any time soon. He deserved a much greater ovation than was accorded him, but hopefully he was forewarned that Pittsburgh opera audiences are not an especially demonstrative lot, especially when the clock nears eleven.
The opera will be repeated on April 5, 8, and 10, and the chances to hear Mr. Angelini and Ms. Stallings should not be missed.
For full production, cast, schedule and ticket information, please visit Pittsburgh Opera.
Special thanks to Pittsburgh Opera for two complimentary press tickets.
“The Artistic Team” for The Barber of Seville –
Antony Walker, Conductor; Linda Brovsky, Stage Director; Allan Stichbury, Set Designer; Andrew David Ostrowski, Lighting Designer; James Geier, Wig & Make-up Designer; Sean Kelly, Assistant Conductor; Mark Trawka, Chorus Master; James Lesniak, Associate Coach/Pianist; Sean Kelly, Second Pianist; Cindy Knight, Stage Manager.
Photography – David Bachman.