One of the great pleasures of attending the opera is watching a familiar work transform in the hands of new interpreters. Most illuminating is comparing two casts in the same production, as I was recently able to do on consecutive evenings with Washington Opera’s revival of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. The template remained the same each nightsets, costumes, lighting, and (at least on paper) blocking and stage businessbut there was a world of difference between those two performances.
Barber is one of those operas people know even though they don’t think they do. This is the opera with the overture to which Bugs Bunny shaves and hair-tonics Elmer Fudd. It’s the one with the aria “Largo al Factotum” that kids the world over use to mock opera, bellowing “Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!” across schoolyards and picnic grounds. And its plot is a classic, used and reused over the better part of the last millennium by everyone from Chaucer to Nabokov to the Fox Network: Old Lech tries to keep his convent-trained teenage fiancée locked up tight, but Another Man penetrates the fortress (so to speak) with the help of a shady but endearing pal and some great disguises. The older the story gets, the wider the range of interpretive possibilities.
Which brings me back to the WashOp Barber. The production has had its share of PR scuttlebutt and whispered backstage intrigue, starting with the defection of the originally announced stage director, continuing with rumors of truculent singers making life difficult for replacement director Leon Major, and continuing, as I write this, with the flu season shuffling singers and conductors out of their neatly arranged A and B casts. On the two consecutive nights I saw the show (Jan. 5 and 6), for example, I missed the A-cast Almaviva and Rosina completely, seeing something like a modified-A and complete-B arrangement, respectively.
WashOp’s strong suit continues to be its vocal casting: Both ensembles offer uniformly solid, stylistically appropriate voicesand often much more than that. But at the risk of a potentially gross oversimplification, Cast A might be thought of as the acting cast and Cast B as the singing cast. Figarothe barber of the title, who helps the lovers do their couple thingis as good a place to start as any. Vittorio Vitelli (B) has a firmer, darker, rounder baritone voice of more focus and heft than Alfredo Daza’s (A), but Daza (whose voice is certainly a lovely, virile instrument) is by far the more natural comedian. Vitelli has trouble unfurrowing his brow, though his deadpan, darkly handsome Figaro suggests a casual confidence and slight element of danger that are appropriate to the character. Daza is all sunny smiles, boyish cuteness, and peppy ingenuousness. He overdoes the calculated preciousness in “Largo al Factotum” but soon settles down to some wonderfully lived-in, cannily timed comic playing. The mutterings under his breath when no one is heeding his advice are well-gauged and funny, and he throws himself into the more shameless, proscenium-breaking bits (like “noticing” that his mimed guitar playing is really coming from the orchestra pit) with just the right level of self-awareness. Vitelli downplays the schtick, and his character becomes a sexier but less engaging presence in the production.
The production, it should be mentioned, is a very fine one. The aesthetic is entirely traditional, but it embraces the cartoon elements of the piece, not least in Allen Moyer’s Day-Glo storybook sets. Major is a sure-handed veteran director, as much at home in big conceptual productions as he is in domestic dramas or, as here, stylized farces. His stage business is full of imagination, and he peppers the action with self-satirizing humor. (Two of the characters step to the edge of the stage to read what the surtitles have just said during a confusing rapid-fire section of patter.) But because the singers seem to treat his direction like a cafeteria steam table from which they select, discard, or mix up the offered morsels at will, you pretty much have to assemble Major’s production from pieces of both casts’ performances.
The part of Dr. Bartolo, the jealous old guardian of the very eligible young Rosina, is another role that emerges much funnier in the hands of an A-lister (William Parcher) than his somewhat smoother-voiced B-team counterpart (Steven Condy). That’s not to say that Condy isn’t funny; although he’s too young for the role, he generates a good many laughs through natural acting and a light touch with stage business. And there are some successful bitshis despondent attempts to speed his old butler out of the room, for examplethat I don’t remember Parcher even doing. But there are plenty of other moments in which Parcher shines. He’s one of those artists who can steal a scene while sleeping. I mean that literally: There’s a scene that requires Bartolo to doze so the young lovers can make plans; Condy snores amusingly, but Parcher makes an inconspicuous but hysterical meal of that slumber. Parcher scores decisively, too, in the castrato impression asked of him once he’s awake. Parcher is returning later this season as Bartolo in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (a sequel written decades before Barber), but he won’t have quite the same comic opportunities there. WashOp should revive its Don Pasquale for himand give him a director of Major caliber to work with.
The two Rosinas are about as diametrically opposed as a pair of singers can be. This ingenue role of Bartolo’s young ward can be sung by a lyric soprano or a dark-toned mezzo, depending on which options in the score are taken. It’s a role as closely identified with, say, Kathleen Battle as with, say, Marilyn Horne, and the current WashOp casts offer a comparable study in contrasting timbres.
Galina Sidorenko (modified A) is all slouching sultriness; Angela Turner Wilson (B) is pert, smiling, and mischievous. Sidorenko is dark-haired and seductively beautiful, and sings in a dusky mezzoalthough with less-secure top notes and more generalized phrasing than mezzo WashOp Rosinas of seasons past. Wilson bounces in in a tumble of blond curls and fires off a fusillade of coloratura ornaments in a canary-bright soprano. Sidorenko looks as if she’s been around the piazza a few times, but Wilson exudes the complete confidence of someone who’s read all about love but hasn’t yet experienced it. Sidorenko conveys her displeasure with a cocked eyebrow, Wilson with a squeak and feigned tears. Sidorenko’s Rosina is a Russian Carmen in a frilly dress; Wilson’s is every younger sister in Jane Austen’s novels. And Angeles Blancasthe Rosina on opening nightis reported to sing with Wilson’s soprano agility while playing the spoiled-petulance card, which prompts a question: Which of the three options did the director really want?
I’m sorry I missed Joseph Calleja (a Cast A flu victim) as Rosina’s persistent young suitor, Count Almaviva, because he’s reputedly engaging and vocally impressive in the role. Corey Evan Rotz (B) sang back-to-back performances the nights I attended. His tenor is mellifluous and well-suited to the light, fast writing in the Barber scorealthough certain vowels curdle his high notes into nasal bleats. Dramatically, however, there’s nothing happening with this Almaviva. Rotz stands as if posing for a men’s sportswear catalogue, formulates his notes, and pushes them out. E basta!
The disguises he dons to gain entry to Bartolo’s house (drunken soldier and milquetoast music tutor) free Rotz to play, but not all that much. And countless opportunities to establish Almaviva’s passion, his quick-wittedness, his sense of fun, are squandered. He was marginallymarginallymore animated at the Jan. 6 performance. But the only time I saw him really let looseindeed, the only time I remember him even smilingwas when he burst out in a generous laugh during the curtain call on Jan. 5. It was a moment of such spontaneous vitality that it made me wish all the more fervently that he had connected with that joy during his performance.
The smaller roles are cast from strength in both ensembles. James Shaffran (A and B) is an impish, sonorous Fiorello (the musician hired by Almaviva who opens the opera), very much at one with the production’s wry tone. Jacob Harris (also common to both casts) makes the role of Bartolo’s silent butler, Ambrogio, a highlight of the show: Major’s running joke about a cup of espresso that the stooped, glacially slow servant can’t quite deliver becomes one long, shamelessly entertaining geriatric sight gag in his hands. Berta, the maid, plays well both young and spunky (Connie Coffelt in Cast A) and slightly older and quietly exasperated (Laura Zuiderveen in Cast B, who possesses a more even voice and a world-class stage sneeze). WashOp has scored big with its Basilios, too. Both singers in the part of the slanderous music teacher are ghoulish, towering Munsters, part Grand Guignol, part Hanna-Barbera. If I slightly prefer Rosendo Flores’ (A) saucer-eyed lunatic to Philip Skinner’s (B) Marx Brother of the living dead, it’s not by much. Both have fine, thrusting bass voices.
On the nights I went, the conductors swapped casts. Manuel Valdivieso (B, but conducting A) is a tad slyer and suaver in his phrasing, Steven Gathman (A, but conducting B) cleaner and perkier, but otherwise there’s not much to choose between them. Both find subtextual niceties in the orchestration, and neither seems to be able to keep the ensembles in sync between stage and pit.
By a nose, the A Team gives the better show, but bird fanciers may find more to admire in Company B. CP