Well-worn `Barber' seems fresh again

Review: Baltimore Opera enlivens Rossini's comedy.

October 13, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

There was an unavoidably sobering moment at the start of the Baltimore Opera Company's 51st season one month to the day after the terror attacks. The cast of Rossini's The Barber of Seville, all in costume, lined up in front of a festive curtain to lead the audience in the national anthem.

Could such a well-worn comedy possibly be funny after that reminder of the world outside? Absolutely. If you've been feeling the need to laugh again, here's your chance. Stefano Vizioli's production reveals an almost manic determination to amuse. Yes, it's thick with shtick; yes, a few bits fall flat. But from its eavesdropping townsfolk in Act 1 to self-flagellating servants in Act 2, this is a very sharp Barber. It's a very colorfully sung and conducted Barber, too.

The fun started Thursday as the familiar sounds of the overture filled the Lyric Opera House. Under Claudio Desderi's guidance, subtleties often glossed over emerged delectably; the little echo effect in the violins was but one example. The orchestra struggled to keep up with Desderi's wonderful warp-speed in the coda, and hit a few other bumps during the night, but the music never stopped bubbling in the pit.

On stage, things were no less animated. With a choreographer's eye for movement and a touch of the Marx Brothers' timing, Vizioli created a meticulous zaniness. The characters were like figures in a giant cuckoo clock who pop out at the stroke of 13 and have a ball for three hours.

Vladimir Chernov was a nimble-footed, vocally prismatic Figaro. Maybe he used a funny, nasal tone to deliver asides once too often, but the animation of his phrasing and the bright steadiness of his baritone were potent. Whether slipping Rosina a cigarette or befuddling Dr. Bartolo, this Figaro owned the stage.

As Almaviva, Bruce Fowler quickly warmed up after a constricted Ecco ridente to deliver a suave Se il mio nome (the guitar accompaniment amusingly turned into a fandango). The tenor's musical elegance and easy stage presence made a winning combination.

Vivica Genaux's warm, sure mezzo suited Rosina perfectly. Una voce poco fa could have been a bit more nuanced, but the rest of the music had terrific vibrancy.

Bruno Practico was an unusually light-toned, yet still imposing and finely detailed, Dr. Bartolo. It was the same with Ildebrando D'Arcangelo's Don Basilio - not the deepest, darkest bass sound around, but top-notch interpretive ideas. (A very slow La calunnia was masterfully phrased).

Proving there are no small roles, only small voices, Madeleine Gray had a field day as the servant Bertha, even stealing the limelight from Rosina in the Act 1 finale (one more fresh bit of humor). The opera was a visual playground, with Francesco Calcagnini's whimsical sets ever on the move, and a nice foil for his traditional costumes. Maja E. White's lighting occasionally left folks in the dark but complemented the overall design attractively.

But the use of the recitative accompanist as a bit actor wore thin; worse was the miking of the fortepiano, which sounded like an electronic keyboard with mega-bass. Although I could have done without the snippet of Wagner that popped up, Moshe Landsberg's playing of those recitatives added one more spark to a production brimming with imagination.

Opera

What: Rossini's The Barber of Seville

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8:15 tonight and Oct. 19, 3 p.m. tomorrow and Oct. 21, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

Tickets: $37 to $116

Call: 410-727-6000

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