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Opera San José

The Barber of Seville

November 26, 2006

Talise Trevigne(Rosina)

Scott Bearden
(Dr. Bartolo)

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Out of Its Time

By David Bratman

If Gioacchino Rossini had lived in early 20th century America instead of early 19th century Italy, he would surely have been writing for Broadway. But The Barber of Seville, his setting of a libretto by Cesare Sterbini (based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ play), seems less a musical theater comedy out of its time than a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta out of its time.

It could easily be cast by using the G&S repertory characters. Almaviva and Rosina, for example, are the young high-voiced lovers, G&S’s Nanki-poo and Yum-yum or Ralph and Josephine, whose devotion is taken for granted and who overcome obstacles to achieve a blissful ending. (Listeners must firmly put out of mind the couple’s trials in Beaumarchais’ sequel, set to music 30 years earlier by Mozart.) Figaro and Doctor Bartolo would be G&S’s two baritones, Ko-ko and Pooh-bah or General Stanley and the Pirate King, one fast-talking and witty, the other a heavier authority figure, who either facilitate the young couple’s hookup or stand in their way.

Don Basilio is the darker-voiced man who arrives partway through the act and complicates the plot, like the Mikado or the Grand Inquisitor, while Berta is the lovelorn older woman, a Katisha or Lady Jane. And there you have it. Surely, also, the opening scene of Barber was one inspiration for the moment in The Pirates of Penzance when the characters sing loudly about how quietly they’re creeping.

Comic opera experience counts

But Rossini and Sterbini are no Gilbert and Sullivan, and The Barber of Seville is not The Mikado but rather an opera with its own distinctions and delights. The Sunday matinee of Opera San José's production of Barber, which plays through Dec. 3 at the California Theatre and is conducted by Michael Morgan (alternating with Barnaby Palmer), began a little awkwardly but became bright and lively when the action moved indoors partway through the first act. The work brightened when the charming Rosina and the buffoonish Doctor Bartolo become major characters — they appeared only briefly in the earlier scene. They were by far the best-sung, and best-acted, roles in this performance’s cast.

Opera San José sees its function as, in part, a teaching theater, giving professional stage experience to talented young singers. For this they need both teachers and exemplars, and they could have no better guide in comic opera than the experienced Scott Bearden as Bartolo. His voice is strong, firm, and carrying. He matches the orchestra cleanly and conveys conviction in Bartolo’s angry chastisement of his ward Rosina, in the aria “A un dottor della mia sorte.”

Bearden also knows how to undercut himself: He is never funnier than when mocking Rosina’s voice during her music lesson in Act 2. He looks funny, too, in a badly cut pale-blue coat and a florid wig (which, of course, he eventually loses), and he shows awesome physical comedy skills when he falls over his shaving apron and rolls on the floor. Always make the audience laugh, but never make them wince in such a scene — Bearden manages it by being rubbery.

Talise Trevigne, a soprano who joined the resident company this season, made an excellent foil as Rosina. Thin and coquettish, she is clothed nicely by costumer Cathleen Edwards in two successive pink dresses with a small mantilla. Her facial expressions are always animated, she doesn’t pine after Almaviva but always seems happy to see him, and her voice, emitted with no perceptible effort, is even stronger and cleaner than Bearden’s. Every opera needs one aria in which the female lead lets it all out. Barber’s is a cavatina titled “Una voce poco fa,” and if Trevigne doesn’t look quite as wily as her words implied, her delivery of that vocal showpiece was about as strong in the small theater as was bearable.

Guest tenor Omar Gutierrez Crook sang Almaviva. He seemed bland in the opening scene underneath Rosina’s window but came to life in his two disguises and remained charming when he finally cast them off. If Gutierrez Crook is taking acting and singing tips from Bearden, he’s learning his lessons well. His physical comedy was good, and he showed a capacity for self-mockery when posing as Don Alonso, the music master. There he made his naturally reedy voice even more nasal as part of the disguise, turning it on and off according to whether Almaviva thinks Bartolo is watching him.

Singing to a captive audience

The best moment in the opening scene was Figaro’s entrance. Daniel Cilli, who, like Trevigne, has just joined the resident company, broke into a delighted smile as Figaro when he discovers that he has an entire opera audience to whom he can sing his introductory aria, “Largo al factotum.” In the speedy aria itself, he couldn't keep up to speed, but Cilli did much better in the later ensemble pieces. His baritone voice is deep and full but neither carrying nor commanding, and his boyish looks don’t give him an air of authority, either. His Figaro watches the plot unfold rather than masterminding it, and Cilli did not always seem to know what to do with himself while standing in the background keeping an eye on things. He probably needs more acting experience and stronger stage direction.

Carlos Aguilar, an experienced bass with the company, was Don Basilio. He, too, has a good voice that’s not always commanding enough. In his big aria, “La calumnia è un venticello,” he didn’t seem to be in touch with the orchestra. Most of that aria’s sinister quality came from the strings’ shimmering, metallic ponticello (playing the close to the bridge) rather than the character’s menace. Like Cilli, Aguilar did better in ensemble pieces.

Heather McFadden, a mezzo who sings with many local companies, gave a strong rendering of Berta’s caustic aria “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie” without trying to upstage Trevigne, and got through her character’s sneezes all right. Stephen J. Howes was appropriately inert as the sleeping servant Ambrogio; Jason Sarten did well with the small role of Almaviva’s servant Fiorello; and Andrew Park was a hapless policeman who tries to clear things up at the end of Act 1.

The two sets, designed by Matthew Antaky, were attractive, showing a fine eye for characteristic Spanish-style detail, right down to the wrought iron on the upstairs window.

The pit orchestra used the overture as a shakedown cruise, and after the curtain went up it was in fine shape, chipper in both strings and winds. Morgan, best known as music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony, has led opera before, but this production is his debut with Opera San José. He conducted soberly and plainly, achieving a performance that was lively without attempting to dazzle with speed or virtuosity.

(David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.)

©2006 David Bratman, all rights reserved