Review: Retirement party at "Barber of Seville"
Minnesota Opera's soon-to-be-retired production of Rossini's "Barber of Seville" is full of fine singing, smart trims and comic surprises.
By MICHAEL ANTHONY, Special to the Star Tribune
Rich and famous by the time he was 37, Gioachino Rossini never wrote another opera after that. Just as Rossini retired too soon, most people who see the Minnesota Opera's lively (and final) production of Rossini's greatest hit at the Ordway Center in St. Paul will come to a similar conclusion: This production is too good to be retired.
In fact, it's better this time around, thanks to a strong cast and shrewd staging by Kevin Newbury.
Christopher Mattaliano came up with the original concept of updating the action from 17th-century Seville to Rossini's own time, the early 1800s. That production debuted here in 1995 and was revived in 2001. Mattaliano incorporated a 19th-century performing style that allowed the singers occasionally to address the audience, which, of course, Figaro does in any case. And designer Allen Moyer followed through with period-style painted drops and a big neoclassical proscenium arch. The lighting, too, cleverly designed by D. M. Wood, suggested an earlier era, with footlights down front and shadows on the walls. Sensibly, Wood isn't a fanatic about authenticity, which, for this period, would have meant candles. (Stages were very dim in Rossini 's day.)
Newbury has kept all this and fixed a few things that didn't work the first time around, like Figaro's famous entrance aria, "Largo al factotum," which had all those mimes running around the stage and getting in the way. Newbury instead creates an amusing scene with Figaro shaving a customer as he sings. He also wisely cuts the two big arias -- the Count's and the maid Berta's -- from the second act . Most important, he allows the evening's humor to emerge from the characters and the situations -- and the music -- rather than imposing gags on the proceedings. He's especially good in the ensembles, where the movement onstage becomes increasingly intricate, like the wheels in a clock, all in keeping with the growing intensity of Rossini's music.
Newbury's fine cast proved as adept at comedy as at singing. For once, Dr. Bartolo, our chief villain, wasn't a doddering old fool. In Dale Travis's hands he was a smart, calculating and funny middle-aged bully -- kind of an upper-class Spanish Ralph Kramden -- for whom marriage to his ward, Rosina, is not all that strange an idea. As Figaro, James Westman offered a big, resonant bass-baritone that never faltered. If the character -- Westman's first attempt at this demanding role -- needed a little more comic detail, his charm and charisma were apparent at all times.
Victor Ryan Robertson gave us an earnest -- if not quite aristocratic enough -- Almaviva with just the right kind of light, flexible, well-produced tenor that this part requires. Allyson McHardy was an especially funny and perky Rosina, a mezzo with a bright top, almost always fluent coloratura and secure low notes that lacked something in resonance. (Score one point for Mattaliano: he had Rosina gave Almaviva a smart slap in the face near the end when she thinks he's been unfaithful. It was a moment of truth, whereas Newbury has her try to hit him with a candlestick. It doesn't work.)
Nathan Brian was a confident, well-sung Fiorello, and Matt Boehler was the wonderful Don Basilio, an old schemer whose "La Calunnia," demonstrated, as he sang, on a blackboard, stopped the show. Mention, finally, must be made of James Scott's bright costumes and, above all, the stylish conducting of Robert Wood, who knows how to bring Rossini's famous crescendos to a boil and how to draw an elegant performance from this company's fine orchestra.
Michael Anthony is a former Star Tribune music critic.