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Review: Rossini Royalty Present Brilliant “Barber of Seville” – Los Angeles Opera, February 28, 2015

March 1st, 2015

Los Angeles Opera Music Director and Chief Conductor James Conlon is the champion of his opera company’s “Figaro Trilogy” of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”, Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” and Corigliano’s “Ghosts of Versailles” performed over a two month period that began in early February [See Review: Los Angeles Opera Launches Ambitious New Production of “Ghosts of Versailles” – February 7, 2015.]

The second trilogy offering was Rossini’s greatest work, the unsinkable “Barber of Seville”. (The order in which the three operas are being presented is a consequence of when particular artists were available, otherwise “Ghosts” would be presented third instead of first.)

The Los Angeles Opera production was first performed with two distinguished casts in 2009 [see Florez and DiDonato Dominate Los Angeles Opera’s “Barbiere di Siviglia” – December 6, 2009 and Korchak, Coburn and Meachem Illuminate Alternate “Barber of Seville” Cast – Los Angeles Opera, December 5, 2009].

The 2009 production by Emilio Sagi (originally conceived for the Teatro Real in Madrid), the revival staged by director Trevore Ross, is important because it reflects the worldwide movement of Rossini scholarship that has brought forth critical editions of Rossini’s work.

That scholarship has helped produce a generation of authentically trained Rossini singers to take the opera stage, who possess the lighter voices and vocal flexibility needed to sing the roles as written.

I refer to this generation of artists as Rossini Royalty. Such were the Almaviva and Rosina of the 2015 Los Angeles revival, respectively tenor Rene Barbera and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong.

[Below: Figaro (Rodion Pogossov, left) helps facilitate the marriage of the Count (Rene Barbera. center) and Countess (Elizabeth DeShong, right) Almaviva; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathew photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


Rossini Royalty: Rene Barbera’s Count Almaviva

The Los Angeles audience attending this performance experienced a more consistently authentic Rossini performance of the kind that top tier opera companies now strive to present.

A half-century ago, relatively few tenors singing the role of the Count Almaviva attempted the elaborate phrases, requiring a rapid movement of the voice, that are an essential component of the Rossini style.

[Below: Count Almaviva (Rene Barbera) disguised as the student Lindoro; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathew photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


Most notably, Almaviva’s great showpiece aria of the final act, Cessa di piu resistere, was everywhere a standard cut. [In the San Francisco Opera’s first 90 years no artist sang that aria before its 2013 season.]

Texas tenor Rene Barbera has emerged as one of the world’s most accomplished Rossini tenors.

He has conquered the American Southwest with his winning performances of Prince Ramiro in Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” at the Los Angeles [Love All Around for Cinderella, Prince Charming in Joan Font’s Zany Staging of Rossini’s “Cenerentola” – Los Angeles Opera, March 23, 2013] and San Francisco [“Cenerentola” Review: San Francisco Opera’s Splendidly Sung, Sumptuously Staged Cinderella Story – November 9, 2014] Operas.

He also was part of the Santa Fe Opera’s stellar cast for Rossini’s “Lady of the Lake” opera. [See Rossini Royalty: DiDonato, Brownlee, Pizzolato and Barbera in Curran’s Staging of “Donna Del Lago” – Santa Fe Opera, July 26, 2013.]

As Il Conte Almaviva, he sang the legato lines of serenade to Rosina stylishly and dashed off the Olympian feat of the treacherous aria Cessa di piu resisters with seeming effortlessness.

In between, he did what all Almavivas must do, he engaged in the wacky antics that Almaviva disguised a poor student, as a drunken soldier and as a faux music teacher is expected to perform.

[Below: Almaviva (Rene Barbera, second from left, disguised as a drunken soldier, threatens to kill Doctor Bartolo (Alessandro Corbelli, right) with a sword while Figaro (Rodion Pogossov, second from right) and Rosina (Elizabeth DeShong, left) restrain him; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathew photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


Rossini Royalty: Elizabeth DeShong’s Rosina

The role of Rosina, written for a lower female voice (mezzo-soprano), was in years past performed in a revised score to accommodate the ranges of lyric coloratura sopranos, whose training at that time better accommodated the fireworks of the aria Una voce poco fa. 

In Los Angeles the part of Rosina was sung by Pennsylvania mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong.

[Below: Rosina (Elizabeth DeShong) is determined to defy her guardian’s edict banning her communication with the outside world; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathew photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


In my interview with her [Rising Stars – An Interview with Elizabeth DeShong] in response to my question about singing roles in operas by Rossini and Donizetti, she spoke of the differences, but also stated their operas “all require you to use every tool in your vocal toolbox . . . agility, seamless quality throughout your range, endless colors, breath control, etc. in order to make the characters and music come to life.”

In fact, the resources of DeShong’s “vocal toolbox” were evident throughout the evening. DeShong’s big aria was brilliantly sung, and she acted convincingly, displaying, as a Rosina must, the determination to assert her independence and to have her way.

Figaro and the Other Principal Cast Members

Performance styles have not changed as dramatically for the lower voices as they have for Almaviva and Rosina. The performances of Russian baritone Rodion Pogossov’s Figaro, Italian basso buffo Alessandro Corbelli and Icelandic basso Kristinn Sigmundsson were exemplary of the long tradition of these roles.

The highlight of any Figaro’s performance is his opening aria, Largo al factotum, arguably – perhaps only excepting the Wedding March from Wagner’s “Lohengrin” (and, among many movie fans the Ride of the Valkyries from Wagner’s “Die Walkuere”) – the most familiar excerpt from all of opera.

[Below: Figaro (Rodion Pogossov, left, on cart’s ladder) explains his services to the people of Seville; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathew photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


Pogossov, whose Los Angeles debut was as Papageno in the Barrie Kosky production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute”, showed mastery of the rapid “patter” of opera buffa comic arias that comprises the latter part of the iconic aria.

Corbelli, whose buffo roles in operas of Mozart, Rossini and Donizetti I have reviewed in Paris, San Francisco, Houston and Los Angeles, showed his own patter skills in the amusing A un dottor della mia sorte.

The part of Don Basilio with its own famous aria La calunnia is a role assumed by many traditional (as opposed to buffo) bassos. Icelandic basso Kristinn SIgmundsson (who also performed in “Ghosts of Versailles”) was a formidable presence in the part.

[Below: Don Basilio (Kristinn Sigmundsson, front), with Rosina (Elizabeth DeShong, right center, rear) looking on, announces he will leave; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathew photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


Baritone Jonathan Michie sang the role of Fiorello, who leads the band that accompanies Almaviva’s curtain-opening serenade.

Michie is a versatile artist that one associates with juicy character roles. [For an account of a performance in a larger role, see Susan Graham’s Star Glows in Offenbach’s Sexy, Witty “Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” – Santa Fe Opera, June 28, 2013.]

(Taking on a starring role assignment, Michie has been announced as Papageno in the Los Angeles Opera’s 2016 performances of Mozart’s “THe Magic Flute”.)

[Below: Fiorello (Jonathan Michie, right) leads the street band hired to perform an early morning serenade; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathew photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


In this performance Michie is entrusted with fourteen measures of recitative (in costume, from the conductor’s podium) expressing the same annoyance with Almaviva’s pursuit of women that Leporello expresses of Don Giovanni, with the same determination to quit his service for good.

My vocal score states: “This recitative is never performed.” Los Angeles Opera audiences should know that they are seeing something that virtually no other audiences have the privilege to see. For the record, Michie got a big laugh!

Conductor Conlon’s 42-Year “Barber” Break

James Conlon has instituted a tradition in Los Angeles – presenting a pre-performance lecture before each opera performance he conducts (excepting only each season’s opening night).

Since Conlon is conducting the entire Figaro Trilogy and it is a labor of love for him, much of his lectures is spent on Beaumarchais, the author of the trilogy of plays on which the three operas are based and on the interrelationships of the three plays and the three operas in Conlon’s Trilogy.

He has made a point of Rossini’s “Barber”, which he first saw in 1962 (even earlier than my first “Barber”) being the turning point in his life, inspiring him to pursue a career in musical performance.

When he began conducting a decade later, he said he knew that “Barber” would be one of the core operas in his conducting repertory. However, as it turned out, he has not had a “Barber” conducting assignment since 1973.

As related earlier in the review, it is significant that in the interval between his 1973 performance and his taking up the “Barber” baton this February evening, that Rossini performance has evolved through scholarship and new attention to how the operas should be sung.

Although the aria Cessa di piu resistere was in the score, its length and difficulty made it a standard cut, so that most opera-goers had never seen it performed. Now 42 years later no first rank tenor would take on the role and not expect to sing it at every performance.

[Below: Count Almaviva (Rene Barbera) has shed all his disguises and now asserts his authority, demanding, through his aria Cessa di piu resistere that everyone accept his marriage as a fait accompli; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathew photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


Notes on the Sagi production

The 2009 production is a distillation of many of Spanish director Emilio Sagi’s thoughts on the piece. (In 2013 he created a new production for the San Francisco Opera that repeats some ideas and adds others.)

The sets by Spanish scenery designer Llorenc Corbella consist of inventive combinations of modules that are twirled into place from scene to scene by a group of dancers.

In the earliest scene each of the dancers are dressed costumed as a young Rossini, directing the action while moving scenery into place.)

The action takes place in Seville, so the dances of Southern Spain and particularly the Andalusian region are present. Often dancing takes place during the many upbeat Rossini vocal numbers.

Various non-textual characters assist the maid Berta (mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer), when they aren’t joining her in eavesdropping on what Rosina, Figaro and the other principal characters are saying.

In Sagi’s productions the finale is spectacular, with colorful dance costumes and an ascending passenger balloon to mark the beginnings of the Almavivas honeymoon.

[Below: the finale of Emilio Sagi’s production of “The Barber of Seville”; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathew photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]



I recommend this cast and production enthusiastically, both for the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera, with special mention of the conducting by James Conlon and of Rene Barbera’s Almaviva and Elizabeth DeShong’s Rosina.

Tags: 2005-2015: William's Reviews

Review: Blythe, Rae, Shrader Sizzle in Seattle Opera’s Saucy “Semele” – February 25, 2015

February 26th, 2015

The Seattle Opera has launched a new production of Handel’s 1744 opera “Semele”, about Jupiter’s affair with a human being who turns out to be the mother of Bacchus (Dionysius).

Cleverly staged by Tomer Zvulun with impressive sets and projections by Erhard Rom, it provided a vehicle for triumphant performances by Brenda Rae in the title role and Alek Shrader as Jupiter and a star turn for Stephanie Blythe.

[Below Jupiter (Alek Shrader, right) adopts a human form to seduce Semele (Brenda Rae, left); edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]


Both Rae and Shrader showed mastery of Handel’s expressive and sustained legato lines with passages of lyric coloratura.

Brenda Rae’s Semele

Previously I had enjoyed Rae’s performances in other roles that require sustained legato with bursts of coloratura , notably Violetta [Brenda Rae, Michael Fabiano Impress in Pelly’s Party-Time “Traviata” – Santa Fe Opera, July 29, 2013].

These qualities are were also present in the tour de force of Santa Fe Opera’s 2014 double bill, which gave her an opportunity to show her skills at operatic comedy [See Review: A Hilarious “Impresario” Creates a “Rossignol” Land of Enchantment – Santa Fe Opera, August 1, 2014.]

Rae’s Semele’s show-stopping Myself I shall Adore with its coloratura fireworks deservedly drew a great ovation.

[Below: Brenda Rae (right) is Semele and Alek Shrader (left) is Semele; edited image, based on an Avi Loud photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]


Alek Shrader’s Jupiter

Shrader’s voice has coloratura flexibility for which he is justly famous. Shrader is especially associated with the comic roles of Rossini and Donizetti [see Review: Ovations for Laurent Pelly’s Daffy “Don Pasquale” – Santa Fe Opera, June 28, 2014, yet his voice has a baritonal quality that is especially effective in this heroic Handel role.

In my recent interview with him, he spoke of the challenges of singing Handel [Rising Stars – An Interview with Alek Shraderwhich he has performed at the San Francisco Opera in a “tongue-in-cheek” comic presentation [See Review: An Engaging Cast, Handel’s Seductive Music, and Christopher Alden’s Surreal Staging Enliven San Francisco Opera’s “Partenope” – San Francisco Opera, October 15, 2014.]

[Below: Jupiter (Alek Shrader, right) has brought Semele (Brenda Rae, left) to a “secret” place where they can pursue their relationship; edited image, based on a Elixe Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]


But the part of Jupiter in this production is a romantic role, a sex-obsessed prince charming. One is easily convinced that a god seeking a human form to pursue women would indeed choose Shrader’s body clothed in designer Vita Tzykun’s seductive costume.

Stephanie Blythe’s Juno and Ino

The principal comic roles in Zvulun’s production are those of Stephanie Blythe as Juno and Amanda Forsythe as Juno’s hilarious servant/sidekick Amanda Forsythe.

[Below: the goddess Juno (Stephanie Blythe, right) plots revenge against her errant husband with her servant and spy Iris (Amanda Forsythe, right); edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]


Blythe’s vocal performance was memorable, her deep dramatic mezzo bringing power and beauty to what might be described as three roles – the goddess Juno, Semele’s sister Ino, and Juno disguising herself as Ino for villanous purposes that lead to Semele’s demise.

One of the most remarkable artists singing today, Blythe showed a different talent for which there is no opportunity to show off in her famous roles composed by Wagner and Verdi. She has superb comic timing and proved to be a brilliant comedienne.

Stage director Tzykun obviously unleashed Blythe and Forsythe to create “over-the-top” performances.

That Blythe was able simultaneously to provide such a display of elegantly phrased vocal sound, while causing the audience to roar with laughter, showed what a formidable talent this great artist has become.

[Below: Ino (Stephanie Blythe, above) is in love with Athamas (Randall Scotting, below); edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]


Others in the Cast

Counter-tenor Randall Scotting sang the relatively small role of Athamas, the man to whom Semele, against her will, has been promised in marriage.

Bass John Del Carlo had two roles, the latter of which, the god (of sleep) Somnus, best fit the veteran basso’s voice and comedic talents. His other role was Cadmus, father of Semele and Ino. Tory Pell was Pasithea. The conductor was Gary Thor Wedow.

Olympus and Valhalla

The opera has a plot that resembles that of a more familiar opera that was first performed just over a century and a quarter after “Semele’s” premiere.

In the 1744 opera, “Semele”, the queen of the gods, Juno, is the gaurdian of marriage. Her husband Jupiter, the most powerful god, is a philanderer who wanders Earth in disguise. He offends Juno as a spouse by his flagrant affair with Semele. He offends Juno as a goddess because the subject of Jupiter’s affection, Semele, is engaged to be married to Athamas, and Juno has officially blessed their impending marriage. Juno seeks revenge.

[Below: in one of Erhardom’s projections of the realm of the god Jupiter, Jupiter (Alek Shrader, left) shows Semele (Brenda Rae, right) a view of earth from their celestial love-nest; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]


In the 1870 opera, “Die Walkure”, the queen of the gods, Fricka, is the guardian of marriage. Her husband Wotan, the most powerful god, is a philanderer who wanders Earth in disguise. He offends Fricka as a spouse by his flagrant affair with Erda. He offends Fricka as a goddess because she officially defends the marriage of one of his offspring, Sieglinde,to Hunding, and Wotan is attempting to have Sieglinde’s brother slay Sieglinde’s husband and become her lover. Fricka seeks revenge.

(One notes that Stephanie Blythe has triumphed as both Fricka and Juno at the Seattle Opera. See Wagner’s “Walkuere” Victoriously Revived at Seattle Opera – August 5, 2013.)

There is another parallel between “Semele” and “Die Walkure” (the valkyrie referred in the opera’s title is Brunnhilde.) The fates of both end in their immolations, although Brunnhilde’s is voluntary and Semele’s is an act of calculated murder by Juno.

Juno uses trickery to persuade Semele to demand that Jupiter make love to her not in his human form but in his form as a god. The sex act with a powerful god burns Semele to ashes, but from her ashes Bacchus/Dionysius is born.

The announcement of Bacchus’ birth is made by Apollo. (Shrader, not only is Jupiter, but performs the brief role of Apollo, whose image shows above the stage in the final scene.)

[Below: Apollo (Alek Shrader, on screen above) announces the birth of Bacchus; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]



I suggest that Handel’s 1744 opera “Semele” has the power to connect with 21st century audiences in a way that it failed to do with audiences of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s an opera about sexual passion, extramarital affiars and the spousal revenge that such affairs might inspire.

I recommend it to experienced opera-goers as a fine display of exemplary contemporary singing of baroque opera in an absorbing production.

For those unfamiliar with baroque opera, I would recommend this production as an introduction to it.

Tags: 2005-2015: William's Reviews

In Quest of Donizetti and Early Verdi – March 2015 through August 2015.

February 20th, 2015

As noted in other postings in this “Quests and Anticipations” series, I prefer to segment the operas of the most famous early and mid-19th century Italian composers in a non-traditional way: (1) those of Rossini and Bellini, (2) those of Donizetti and early Verdi (i.e, those of the tw0 decades of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” and Verdi’s “Stiffelio”), and those of the mature Verdi (i.e.,”Rigoletto” and his later works.) For futher discussion of this categorization, see: Gaetano Donizetti: European Romanticism and The Pathway to Verdi

Below is a list of performances of operas Gaetano Donizetti and early operas of Giuseppe Verdi that will be performed between March 2015 and April 2016.

This list is supplementary to previous lists in this “Quests and Anticipations” series of selected operas being performed from February 2015 through March 2016:

Corigliani’s “The Ghosts of Versailles” at the Los Angeles Opera [See In Quest of Opera Company Performances of American Works – July 2014 to February 2015.]

Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” at the Los Angeles Opera [See In Quest of the “Da Ponte” Mozart Operas – October 2014-March 2015.]

Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the Santa Fe Opera [See In Quest of Popular Verdi Operas – October 2014 to Summer 2015.]

Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” at the Washington National Opera, Handel’s “Semele” at the Seattle Opera, Berlioz’ “The Trojans (Les Troyens) at the San Francisco Opera, and Vivaldi’s “Cato in Utica” at the Glimmerglass Festival [See In Quest of Less Well-Known Operas – February to August, 2015.]

Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” at the Los Angeles Opera and the San Francisco Opera and Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” at the San Francisco Opera and the Houston Grand Opera [See In Quest of “Figaro” Operas – February 2015 through February 2016.]



Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti), New Orleans Opera, March 13 and 15(m), 2015.

The New Orleans Opera presents two performances of the Donizetti opera most associated with the glamorous coloratura divas of the past 18 decades.

After a successful year in Europe, Texas-born lyric-coloratura soprano Laura Claycomb returns to the United States to perform this iconic role.

[Below: the promotional poster for “Lucia di Lammermoor” from neworleansopera.org]


William Burden is her lover Edgardo, Michael Chioldi her brother Enrico and Jordan Bisch her clergyman Raimondo.

[My interviews and conversations with Laura Claycomb can be accessed from A Conversation with Lyric Coloratura Soprano Laura Claycomb, Part 3, my interview with William Burden at American Orpheus: An Interview with William Burden.]


La Fille du Regiment (Donizetti) Santa Fe Opera, July 3, 8, 11, 17, 24, August 3, 8, 12, 20, 26 and 29, 2015.

Santa Fe Opera, which ignored most of the French repertory during its first half century has been making amends with belated Santa Fe Opera premieres of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann”, Gounod’s “Faust” and Bizet’s “The Pearlfishers”.

The 2015 season opens with the latest Santa Fe Opera discovery, its first ever performances of Donizetti’s “Fille du Regiment”.

[Below: Soprano Anna Christy; resized image of a Dario Acosta photograph, from annachristy.com.]


Lyric coloratura Anna Christy assumes the title role, Alek Shrader is Tonio, Kevin Burdette is Sergeant Sulpice, and Phyllis Pancella is the Marquise of Birkenfeld. Judith Christin, who is renowned for her character roles, is the Duchess of Krakenthorp. Speranza Scapucci conducts.

Director Ned Canty, whose last adventure at the Santa Fe Opera was a hilarious production of Menotti’s “The Last Savage” is reunited with Christy and Burdette, two of the Menotti productions headliners. The sets are by Allen Moyer.

[For my interviews with Alek Shrader and Kevin Burdette, see, respectively: Rising Stars – An Interview with Alek Shrader and Buff Buffo: An Interview with Kevin Burdette.]


Macbeth (Verdi) Glimmerglass Festival, July 11, 17, 21(m), 26(m), 31, August 8, 13, 15(m), 17(m) and 22, 2015.

Two Glimmerglass Festival favorites, baritone Eric Owens and soprano Melody Moore play the Scottish Couple in Verdi’s masterful opera based on the Scottish Play. Basso Solomon Howard is Banquo.

[Below: Eric Owens is Macbeth; resized image of a Sirochman photograph for IMG Artists.]

ERIC OWENS IMG Paul_Sirochman_Photography

Anne Bogart directs with sets by James Schuette. Joseph Colaneri conducts.


Nabucco (Verdi) Seattle Opera, August 8, 9(m), 12, 14, 15, 19 and 22, 2015. 

At Seattle Opera, several roles are often double-cast, as is the case with its production of “Nabucco” Gordon Hawkins shares the lead role with Weston Hurt. Mary Elizabeth Williams and Raffaela Angelotti share the role of Abigaille. as do Christian Van Horn and Andreas Bauer the role of the Hebrew priest Zaccaria.

[Below: Gordon Hawkins as Nabucco; edited image, based on a production photograph for Opera Carolina.]


Jamie Barton and Russell Thomas are respectively cast as Fenena and Ismaele for all performances. Francois Racine is director. Robert Schaub created the sets. Carlos Montanero conducts.

See previous web-posts in this series in Coast to Coast Selections of Donizetti and Early Verdi Opera Performances and Donizetti and Early Verdi in the American West, January-June, 2012

For additional web-posts in this series, see: In Quest of Donizetti – A 2009-10 UpdateIn Quest of Donizetti – A Fall 2008 UpdateIn Quest of Donizetti – A 2008-09 Itinerary; and In Quest of Donizetti – A 2007-08 Itinerary.

Tags: Quests and Anticipations

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