Los Angeles Opera: Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”
New review by David Gregson
Los Angeles, Nov. 30
In his article on Rossini’s “Il Barbieri di Sivgilia” in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, the erudite and normally perspicacious Richard Osborne dismisses the opera’s closing aria, “Cessa di più resistere,” as “lengthy and expendable.”
Since the arrival of Juan Diego Flórez on the operatic scene, it has become difficult to imagine the opera without this nine-minute-plus number. The handsome and vocally gifted Peruvian tenor now makes that “expendable” aria quite essential as well as a showcase for his beautiful voice, superb musicianship and astounding agility. The audience at Los Angeles Opera’s opening afternoon performance Sunday was clearly thrilled by it.
In an interview made for Great Performances, Flórez said of the aria: “I like it a lot. It fits. It is written, it’s part of the original version of the opera. I think it’s cut often because the tenor isn’t comfortable singing it. In the beginning of my career, I wanted to do it in La Scala, but the conductor didn’t let me. Now, I do it everywhere.”
Normally the most anticipated bits of “Barber” are Figaro’s entrance aria, the famous “Largo al factotum della città,” a highlight which is soon followed by Rosina’s showpiece, “Una voce poco fa.” One might perhaps fairly complain that the extra music for Count Almaviva draws the focus even further away from the opera’s titular hero, who, after all, has only one big solo number – that memorable entrance piece. And it is certainly true that “Cessa di più resistere” with its text denouncing the tyranny symbolized by the grotesque Dr. Bartolo, commandeers a large part of the proletarian Figaro’s revolutionary significance and redistributes it to the aristocracy. It also makes the opera longer – but with Flórez, the extra length is a joy.
Pretending to be “Lindoro,” Almaviva/Flórez also dominates the first scenes of the opera thanks to two of the loveliest tenor arias Rossini ever penned: the serenade “Ecco, ridente in cielo” and the canzona “Si il nome saper.” Nobody could doubt the seductive power of these songs as sung by Flórez yesterday.
I must say, however, those who know this voice chiefly from recordings or broadcasts are often struck by how small and light it seems when heard “live” in an actual auditorium. (I can recall this being an insurmountable obstacle for some people I talked to after hearing this singer in two other venues, San Francisco’s War Memorial and the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden). Flórez projects very well, however, and one can easily adjust one’s ears.
Flórez, of course, was hardly the only star talent of the evening. It would be difficult to imagine the romantic Almaviva matched with a better Rosina than that of mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. One feels compelled to ask, where has this incredibly marvelous singer been all our lives? She’s apparently already 40, and yet this beautiful woman with a perfectly fabulous voice seems relatively new on the scene and is only now making her debut with the LA Opera.
Possessing supreme vocal agility complemented by a velvety, full tone, DiDonato already owns the role of Rosina. I believe there was a time when both mezzo-sopranos or sopranos singing this part would interpolate little personally chosen song recitals into the second act “music lesson scene” containing “Contro un cor che accende amore” (the supposed aria from “The Useless Precaution”), and sometime DiDonato should revive that practice thereby bringing the audience to paroxysms of joy. It would also offset the tenor’s star turn when Flórez is around. In any event, her LA Rosina had everything. She radiated charm and commanded the stage while executing all of the challenging poses and maneuvers required of her by the stage director.
As for the Figaro, well – here we have the man of myriad charms, American baritone Nathan Gunn. He is notable for many things, not the least among them the introduction of several new operatic roles, his performances as Benjamin Brittens’ Billy Budd, and as a very popular Papageno in the Met’s “The Magic Flute.” A versatile artist with seemingly boundless energy, he tends to bring more Papageno-esque cuteness to the Barber than one might care for. He has a fine voice which he uses well, but one wonders if he makes a comfortable fit with the music of Rossini. Unlike his colleagues on this occasion in LA, he was unable, for this listener at least, to dispell the memories of things past. Because he works well in ensembles and only has one solo aria in Barber, his casting works perfectly despite his lack of vocal heft in the “Largo”.
Another pleasure of the evening was Italian bass-baritone Bruno Praticó in the role of the comical tyrant, Doctor Bartolo, the literally classic old fool who tries to hide his gorgeous ward from the prying eyes of suitors. This apparently once was a real problem in Seville (as I learned during a recent visit to that wonderful city and from looking at some of Goya’s satirical etchings). Praticó is a perfect buffo performer who knows all the tricks and has just the right kind of sound. And Andrea Silvestrelli, a booming Italian basso, infused the comic role of Don Basilio (the music teacher and priestly hypocrite) with amusing sepulchral tones.
Not to forget the oft forgotten (in that the poor thing’s single aria is so often eliminated), our chain smoking and forever upstaging maid, Berta, intrusively played (thanks to the stage director) by soprano Kerri Marcinko. She earned a big hand for the singing of the aforementioned number, thankfully left in by the powers that be.
The score received a restrained and exceptionally polished performance under the direction of Italian conductor Michele Mariotti. Bel canto opera seems to be a specialty with him, and one immediately senses his authority in the pit. He seemed to be on the spot all evening, training a careful eye on singers and keeping things coordinated.
The production itself is a tricky though appealing one — but not quite as impressive as the Met’s current version (Bartlett Sher / Michael Yeargan / Catherine Zuber). Directed by Emilio Sagi and Javier Ulacia, designed by Llorenç Corbella, with costumes by Renata Schussheim, this Barber begins in a moonlit void into which dancer/scenery-movers slide the streets of Seville into place. Virtually everything shifts around and all the exterior and interiors are black and white until the thunderstorm sequence near the end of Act Two. Then pastel sheets of rain gradually bring us into a garish Technicolor Oz. This is to symbolize a change from one level of reality into a newer and supposedly better one. It should be noted that the crazy colors are highly suggestive of a certain annual fiesta (La Feria de Sevilla) that still takes place every April in Seville – one in which crazy, over-the-top costumes are the norm.
My main objection to this otherwise delightful show is the excessive upstaging that goes on. The doses of Spanish comedy and dance are delightful — except when they are incessantly occurring behind the backs of the main performers who must contend with this nonsense for one’s attention. Tone it down – just a little – please!
FIGARO Nathan Gunn / (Dec. 5, 12, 19m) Lucas Meachem
COUNT ALMAVIVA Juan Diego Flórez / (Dec. 5, 12, 19m) Dmitry Korchak
ROSINA Joyce DiDonato / (Dec. 5, 12, 19m) Sarah Coburn
DOCTOR BARTOLO Bruno Praticò/ (Dec. 5, 12, 19m) Philip Cokorinos
DON BASILIO Andrea Silvestrelli / (Dec. 5, 12, 19m) Ryan McKinny
BERTA Kerri Marcinko / (Dec. 5, 12, 19m) Ronnita Miller
FIORELLO José Adán Pérez / (Dec. 5, 12, 19m) Daniel Armstrong
CONDUCTOR Michele Mariotti
PRODUCTION Emilio Sagi
DIRECTOR Javier Ulacia
SCENERY DESIGNER Llorenç Corbella
Sunday November 29, 2009 2:00 p.m.
Wednesday December 2, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Saturday December 5, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Sunday December 6, 2009 2:00 p.m.
Wednesday December 9, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Saturday December 12, 2009 12:00 p.m.
Sunday December 13, 2009 2:00 p.m.
Wednesday December 16, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Saturday December 19, 2009 1:00 p.m.
Saturday December 19, 2009 8:00 p.m.
* LA Opera debut.