Only a few years ago, one could expect to see a marked difference in the quality of singing and production values between regional operas houses and the big “international” companies, but the current abundance of excellent opera performers (combining first rate vocal ability with acting skills) and the investment of many regional opera companies in the technical capability to produce “state of the art” opera productions has evened the playing field.
The San Diego Opera has mounted a British-American collaboration – the famous John Conklin-John Copley production of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”, owned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, premiering there in 1989.
San Diego’s cast of principal singers is of international caliber. I’ve reviewed performances of the Russian Don Basilio (Alexander Vinogradov) in Paris; of the American Almaviva (John Osborn) in San Francisco; and of the American Figaro (Lucas Meachem) in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Santa Fe. Two Spanish artists performed the roles of Rosina (Silvia Tro Santafe) and Doctor Bartolo (Carlos Chausson). Both are prominent artists in Europe (although many of Chausson’s early operatic experiences occurred at the San Diego Opera in the late 1970s and early 1980s).
[Below: A band of musicians is hired to serenade under a balcony in John Conklin’s setting of “Barbiere di Siviglia”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
Lucas Meachem’s Figaro
The title role was sung by North Carolina baritone Lucas Meachem in his San Diego Opera debut. I’ve been impressed by his voice and savvy acting for several years (as an Adler Fellow in San Francisco Opera’s Young Artists program he was singing lead roles – including Fra Melitone in Verdi’s “Forza del Destino” [See Zurich and San Francisco: A Tale of Two “Forzas”] –as early as 2005).
The Chicago Lyric production showcases Figaro’s aria Largo al Factotum, surely the most popular aria in all comic opera and perhaps the most familiar excerpt from opera for a large section the wider public. Figaro’s household and barber shop, in this production, is contained in a box set, that is pushed onstage whenever a scene is to take place there. The presence of box sets for Figaro’s aria, and, in the second act for the aria of the maid Berta (sung by Suzanna Guzman), gives special prominence to two Rossini comic interludes, neither of which advances the madcap plot but each of which gives us some insight into each character’s place in the imaginary Seville social scene.
Figaro’s aria begins with him in his loft-level bed. All during the aria he is doffing his bedclothes, and, when down to his undershorts, he begins to don his streetclothes amusingly, sliding down a pole to the first floor to complete the process all in time to the merry music.
Although I respected Meachem’s Figaro in Emilio Sagi production seen in Los Angeles [See Korchak, Coburn and Meachem Illuminate Alternate “Barber of Seville” Cast – Los Angeles Opera, December 5, 2009], I found the Lyric Opera production with the antics accompanying the aria to be especially suited to his comic gifts.
There was no question that the San Diego Opera audience’s first impression of Meachem (the aria being brilliantly sung as well as performed) was love at first sight, with long and vociferous applause at aria’s end and a standing ovation at opera’s end.
[Below: Figaro (Lucas Meachem) who had begun dressing in his upstairs loft, dons his shirt on the street level; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
John Osborn’s Almaviva
The Almaviva was the Iowa-born tenor John Osborn. He was engaging and effective. He demonstrated his coloratura tenor skill near the opera’s end with the demanding showpiece, Cessa di piu resistere, rarely performed in the 20th century, but in the 21st apparently as much an obligation for a star leggiero tenor as quadruple jumps now are for an ice-skating champion.
I had seen him as Almaviva six years ago in San Francisco, in a lamentable production associated with a previous San Francisco Opera administration [see Deconstructing S.F. Opera’s Super-sized “Barber” – November 12, 2006.] (There the hired serenaders grabbed the count and turned him upside down to shake the gold from his pockets. Even in the comic neverland of Rossini’s Spain, no Count would have suffered such an affront to his dignity.)
But in this revival of an production conceived by the always classy John Copley, staged by Herbert Kellner who, in the past, has been an assistant stage director for Copley; Osborn is permitted to create a vivid and likeable portrait of Rosina’s ardent suitor. As a nobleman disguised as an impoverished student, he cuts a romantic image. Then, disguised as a music teacher, he creates physical comedy routines to add yet another hysterical dimension to Rossini’s already very funny situation.
Below: Having staged a midnight serenade, the Count Almaviva (John Osborn) is besieged by serenaders demanding payment for their time; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
Having heard Osborn’s Almaviva when he was in his early 30s and now again later in that age decade that so many tenor voices grow in size and weight, I would suspect that Almaviva and other leggiero tenor roles will cycle out of his performance repertory. His voice has the weight to take on more of the great lyric tenor roles.Those able to get to San Diego to hear Osborn in this role should do so.
Silvia Tro Santafe’s Rosina
Tro Santafe’s San Diego Opera debut as Rosina introduced to California another superb Spanish mezzo-soprano voice. She was vocally secure, brilliant in her showstopper Una voce poco fa, an attractive and stylish actress and comedienne.
[Below: Rosina (Silvia Tro Santafe) reflects on how dangerous it would be for her guardian or any other man to underestimate her skills at getting her way; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
Alezander Vinogradov’s Don Basilio, Carlo Chausson’s Don Bartolo and Suzanna Guzman’s Berta
I had last seen Vinogradov seven years ago in Paris, where I had been impressed by his Colline in Puccini’s “La Boheme” [See Opera National de Paris: Tres Magnifique La Boheme at the Bastille October 21, 2005.]
Just turning thirty when I last saw him, now, almost seven years later, Vinogradov displayed a sonorous basso voice, that is clearly ready for taking on the great Wagnerian and Verdian basso roles. Yet I hope to see him, while still a thirty-something, singing Mozart’s youthful basso roles (such as the title role in the “other” Figaro opera.)
[Below: Don Basilio (Alexander Vinogradov) explains how important it is to use slander against one’s rivals; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
The butt of all “Barber” jokes is Don Bartolo, who, beneath the bluster, is a potentially likable character. Although the production was created in 1988, its revival for the San Francisco Opera took place in 1992, coinciding with the bicentennial observances of Rossini’s birth. The production incorporates a scrim with portraits of Rossini, and, as an in-joke, a large bust of Rossini’s elderly rival Paisiello, whose 1782 setting for “Barber”, Rossini’s work displaced.
In fact, it was Paisiello’s success in creating an opera of the first part of the French political satirist Beaumarchais’ trilogy, that led Mozart to create an opera out of the trilogy’s second part, “The Marriage of Figaro”. But, according to legend, perhaps with some factual basis, Paisiello’s admirers (partisans of an older group of Neapolitan opera composers), and likely Paisello himself, were detractors of the idea of the youthful Rossini composing a new opera on the same theme. Their emnity assured Rossini a first night fiasco, although one soon followed by the opera’s immortal success.
Thus, Bartolo the fuddy-duddy – who, of course, in his own mind is upholding societal (perhaps old Neapolitan comic opera) standards – is shown as an admirer of Paisiello, who represents the old methods of composing comic opera and is, thus, the anti-Rossini.
[Below: Dr Bartolo (Carlos Chausson) during his ward’s music lesson, pays homage to the bust of Paisiello; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Chausson was a familiar presence at the San Diego Opera. I saw him in both lead and comprimario roles in such productions as Verdi’s “Giovanna d’Arco”, Prokofiev’s “The Love for Three Oranges” and a star-studded production of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” in which the Voice of Antonia’s Mother was the occasion for the San Diego Opera debut of the invaluable Suzanna Guzman, who has established a large repertory of San Diego Opera roles over three decades.
[Below: The maid Berta (Suzanna Guzman) prepares for bed; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
In this performance, Guzman was reunited with Chausson, she singing the role of Berta, his maid. That role has a solo aria, and this production provides it with its own box set pushed onstage (representing Berta’s bedroom) where she amusingly, as counterbalance to Figaro’s first act shedding of bedclothes for streetclothes, does the opposite, although much more discreetly undressing than Meachem’s Figaro.
Antonello Allemandi was an indulgent conductor, although this was fine in a production in which both vocal performance and comic routine needs a collaborator to give voice and comedy breathing space, rather than a metronome in the pit.
John Conklin’s set designs are from a period when he seemed to like incongruous things hanging from the sky. Thus (and, I heard members of the audience around me wondering about it) red chairs hang from the ceiling in the otherwise conservative Dr Bartolo’s living room.
I am not persuaded that either this production nor Mozart’s “Idomeneo” from the same creative team in the same era was enhanced by these curiosities. (Conklin’s sets for Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” for Seattle Opera, which were lustily booed when revived for San Francisco, took the conceit to its extreme.) Yet, in this “Barber” the airborne chairs caused no diminution in the pleasure of the performance.
[Below: Rosina (Silvia Tro Santafe, left) consents to become the wife of the person who reveals himself to be the Count Almaviva (John Osborn, center) as Figaro (Lucas Meachem, right) looks on; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
What would be a treat for any first time opera goer, this famous production of “Barber” presented in San Diego with its youthful cast of important international stars, is also a “must see” for any opera aficionado. I recommend it unreservedly.
For my reviews of other recemt Lucas Meachem performances, see: Meachem, Vinco, Lead Cast of Imaginatively Staged “Don Giovanni” – San Francisco Opera, October 23, 2011, and also,
For my interview with Meachem, see: Rising Stars: An Interview with Lucas Meachem, Part I and Rising Stars: An Interview with Lucas Meachem, Part II.