`Barber' is comic opera at its best

Review: Washington Opera's production includes sight gags and vaudeville schtick.

January 16, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

For pure, unadulterated comedy and bright, ear-catching music, Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" remains hard to beat.

The score alone can make us smile - delectably nasty sound effects coming from the violins as slimy Don Basilio sings about the art of spreading malicious gossip; the slow-motion tune that conveys the characters' confusion during the Act 1 finale; the rolling melody that gets tossed around as everyone tries to bid Don Basilio goodnight in the second act. When you add in the zany plot, "The Barber of Seville" continues to define comic opera at its best.

Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" shares the same source for a plot, plays by Beaumarchais that brilliantly upturned 18th century social order. But where Mozart taps into the human beings behind the story and finds ways of making them touching, as well as funny, Rossini just goes for the laughs. So does the Washington Opera's production of "The Barber of Seville" at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater.

The staging is rather reminiscent of classic Carol Burnett skits, right down to that ancient, shuffling man Tim Conway portrayed (here the guy is a servant of Dr. Bartolo, whose determination to marry his ward sets the plot in motion). Sight gags are plentiful, including a bit of breaking-character business that has singers going to the edge of the stage to look up at the surtitles to get their next cue. The storm scene in Act 2 is accompanied by lots of mimed action, including schtick with a ladder that comes straight out of vaudeville.

And where the opera's original libretto provides plenty of its own comedy, stage director Leon Major often adds something extra to the punch line. His approach is sort of like a Mel Brooks film - you keep throwing out the jokes, and some of them are bound to stick. Some of them are bound to fall flat, too, and they do so here, especially when dragged out, often at the expense of the opera's momentum.

But it's hard to complain. Enough of Major's ideas pay off, and he can be forgiven almost anything since he has allowed nearly the entire overture to be played without any visual distractions. These days, it's awfully rare to find a director who thinks an opera audience can handle listening to music all by itself for a few minutes.

On Saturday evening, a young, energetic cast romped across the stage. Vittorio Vittelli proved particularly appealing as the wily barber Figaro, getting in and out of close shaves with aplomb. He's a natural comic actor and a baritone with considerable promise. If some of the coloratura demands of the role were not effortlessly met, his singing had admirable color, warmth and power.

Corey Evan Rotz, as Count Almaviva, got into the spirit of things nicely. His voice tended to sound constricted and edgy when pushed at the top, but he spun out some sweet, soft phrases along the way. As Rosina, Angela Turner Wilson compensated for occasional stridency with bravura flourishes and a vivid characterization. Steven Condy's Dr. Bartolo needed more vocal force but was imaginatively sung. The biggest and most imaginatively varied sounds came from Philip Skinner in a particularly unctuous impersonation of Don Basilio.

Laura Zuiderveen offered solid mezzo tones as the servant Berta, but her aria could have used more drive. For that matter, the entire performance needed to be revved up a notch by conductor Steven Gathman. While his sensitivity to the curves of Rossini's melodic lines was never in doubt, more propulsion and tautness would have helped. This was not the tidiest of performances, either; coordination between pit and stage came unglued here and there.

Other than some off-center violins (especially in the overture), the orchestra made a bright, secure contribution. Allen Moyer's charmingly old-fashioned sets (lots of painted cloth) and James Scott's vibrant costumes guaranteed consistently pretty stage pictures.

Remaining performances of "The Barber of Seville" (with alternating casts) at the Kennedy Center are at 7:30 p.m. today, Thursday, Jan. 23 and Jan. 25; 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Call 202-295-2400 or 800-876-7372.

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