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Rossini’s The Barber of Seville is the kind of bel canto comedy the Washington Opera occasionally has done in its sleep, and the company seems in danger of nodding off for a good chunk of Act 1 in its new production. The classical theater elements in the pre-show setskewed and hauntingly lit against a darkened stagepromise much, but prove window dressing to a ho-hum, cutesy design of neon-colored storybook drops. More damaging is Heinz Fricke’s way with the score, starting with that all-too-familiar overture. The whiz-bang high spirits that prove so irresistible to Pops programmers and the folks at Looney Tunes have been steamrolled out of the music. With percussion subdued and a chamber-recital restraint imposed on the rest of the band, there is no anticipatory frisson whatsoever.
Most puzzling of all is the sobriety of the production itself. I’m not talking deconstruction (which, in any case, would be a tougher sell here than in the composer’s more wistful La Cenerentola) but limited comic imagination. The surprise is that director Leon Major has proved himself a shtickmeister of the highest order in similar materialthink back to the hilarious, ceaselessly inventive business with the troops in Daughter of the Regiment. But the bumbling musicians in the opening scene come and go mirthlessly, and in the dialogue that sets the big Act 2 elopement in motion, Figaro and Count Almaviva (terrifically sung by Michael Chioldi and Brian Nedvin) meander through their blocking like it’s…well, blocking, and nothing more.
Things improve a bit with Vivica Genaux’s entrance as a feisty Rosina. The role is enjoying something of a golden age these days, with mezzos the like of Bartoli and Larmore lavishing their gifts upon it. Genaux can hold her own in such company. Her bright upper register, dusky chest voice, and forwardly placed tone create a spunky, distinctive heroine, and one with acting chops to boot. Of course, in this classic commedia dell’arte plot, involving Rosina’s confinement at the hands of her lecherous old guardian, Bartolo, much of the potential humor lies in the dynamics of their relationship.
It’s refreshing to see a Bartolo who doesn’t succumb to the shameless mugging that so often passes for acting in this part. But once again, the relative straightness of approach brings not so much wry understatement as humorlessness, and it takes Francesco Facini most of Act 1 to generate the requisite comic steam. In this, he finds less help in Edward Russell’s dullish, cotton-mouthed performance as the conspiratorial music teacher, Basilio, than in the Figaro/Almaviva team, who find their comic rhythms with increasing success as the act winds on. By the Act 1 finale, Major’s skill at choreographing comic mayhem rises to a fine silliness, with a running gag involving a doddering servant (Major’s, not Rossini’s, invention) paying off handsomely.
Act 2 is much better. Facini’s self-important, patriarchal fussings are subtle, but dead-on in the Italian buffo tradition. Ditto Nedvin, in appropriately ridiculous Basilio drag, and Chioldi is as personally and vocally engaging as could be wished. The well-known ensemble finale has the proper fizz quotientall that vocal cork-popping distracting from the snoozy response in the pitbut considering his lovely singing throughout, it’s a shame Nedvin loses his bravura final aria to the editorial ax. With the exception of the increasingly garish sets and regrettable overkill in that doddering servant gag, the second half of the evening shows Barber can still come to life, even after an hour on autopilot.
All told, an oddly subdued Eisenhower rep, but one worth investigating for a real musicological find, a pair of fine conductors, and a pair of outstanding mezzo-sopranos. Now on to the pair of potential three-ring circuses opening at the Opera House this March: Mefistofele and Cosi Fan Tutte.CP