On Sunday, March 11, in the Shubert Theater, Boston Lyric Opera presented its second of five performances this week of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville). The near-capacity audience was treated to a captivatingly clever production that reminded everyone just why this work is so deservingly popular. Upcoming performances are March 14, 16, and 18.
In 1822, during what must be one of the most famous and oft-told historical meetings between two musical giants, the 52 year-old Ludwig van Beethoven remarked to the 30-year-old Rossini that he should write exclusively opera buffa, since anything else would “do violence to your nature.” This came from an ailing master who, no doubt, knew he could write circles around the whelp when it came to large-scale harmonic and structural drama; but he also probably knew that the younger composer had a stronger sense of theatrical and comedic timing than the old man ever did. It’s even possible that the ghost of Mozart was floating somewhere in the corner of his inner ear: Beethoven must have seen that both the decades-dead Austrian genius and the Italian pop star standing in front of him had the rare ability never to make the music more complicated than it needed to be.
The work that prompted this comment from the Master was Il barbiere, one of the most popular works in the comic opera repertoire, still performed a dozen or so times a year throughout operadom. And why not? Keen dramatic timing and appropriately simple music, what could be easier? Well, that’s where the performers come in. If they do their job right, it does indeed look and sound easy, and all the honed skill, mastery of technique, and immense musicality behind an effective performance belie the fact that this work is actually very difficult to pull off successfully.
The BLO’s performance was successful to say the least. All the singers flew through Rossini’s vocal acrobatics with ease, delivered the recitatives in a smoothly conversational manner, and made the most of the buffa without slipping into buffoonery. There were also some unexpected takes on the characters themselves. Baritone Jonathan Beyer’s Figaro was a man who took almost boyish glee in his manipulations, while John Tessier’s Almaviva was like a rich jockey who just really, really wants the girl. Both of them played their characters’ friendship as one between two well-meaning glee-club boys who have fantastic singing voices and aren’t afraid to use them for fun and profit. The color of soprano Sarah Coburn’s rich, facile voice gave her Rosina an air that was a bit too mature for the character, but she made up for it with a charmingly girlish coquettishness that didn’t entirely mask the street smarts of a real woman. Judith Christin’s Berta was hilarious as well as impressively sung, and David Cushing, working through a respiratory ailment, still managed to deliver a convincing Basilio as a dark-hued musical moron.
The most delightfully surprising and truly brilliant performance, however, came from baritone Steven Condy as Don Bartolo. This character is often played either as a doddering fool or just a mean old guy, resulting in a mono-dimensional secondo role. Condy’s approach, however, was musico-comedic genius. It was as if Walter Barry were singing Peter Boyle playing the Godfather. The agility of his voice, not only in negotiating the vocal roller-coasters, but also in creating comically nuanced coloring, combined with his clumsily agile physicality and an edgy-but-not-threatening delivery of the role as a whole, stole the show. Based on his performance, the opera might well be re-titled Don Bartolo.
Stage Director Doug Verone and his team created a set that was a perfect visual parallel to the music: mostly painted fore-and backdrops, simple yet colorful, with strong shades of reds, whites, and golds, and occasional spurts of mismatched oranges, browns, and teal-ish greens. The costumes echoed the overall color-schemes, as did the minimal props. These all came together to evoke a lively period feel while refreshingly avoiding the Met-style gaudiness that this opera often lands in. And in keeping with the composer’s perfect timing, the set changes happened quickly, smoothly, and unobtrusively, never disturbing the flow of the performance.
Most of that flow was directed by conductor David Angus. His approach to the tempi and the orchestral colors was snappy, with lots of bite. It tended to stomp on the Italianate lilt that occasionally creeps into the score, and sometimes resulted in speeds that hampered the drama: the humor in the Act II ensemble get-Basilio-out-of-the-room scene really only works if the music is agonizingly slow. Overall, however, Angus and fortepianist Allen Perriello supported the singers sensitively and solidly, spurring the wit and energy that marked the entire wonderful performance.