Music Director Susan Davenny Wyner and the Boston Midsummer Opera brought Rossini’s great comic opera, The Barber of Seville, to Watertown yesterday with terrific singing, great acting, masterful stage direction, and an excellent orchestra. Go see it Friday or Sunday!
It started with Pierre-Augustin Caron, later Caron de Beaumarchais, the French polymath whose claim to fame until 1767 was the invention of an improved escapement mechanism for pocket watches. He is now best known for his trilogy of plays, Le Barbier de Séville ou la Précaution inutile, La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro and L’autre Tartuffe, ou La Mère coupable. Mozart’s and Rossini’s are merely the most popular of a great many operatic settings.
The intimacy of the Mosesian Center allowed Director Ocampo-Guzman to stage close interactive engagement. Like Figaro himself, Ocampo-Guzman used intelligence, wit, inventiveness, and boldness masterfully and spontaneously to interweave fireworks and depth. When Figaro (Robert Balonek) burst into the arena with effortless energy and bravado, he shook hands with audience members in the first row and roamed through the aisles greeting people. Count Almaviva (Theo Lebow) and Don Basilio (David Cushing) also ranged freely in the aisles, blurring boundaries and expanding the stage, but also reviving a messy and dangerous pre-modern Sevilla in which men roamed freely and women were kept under lock and key. As though further putting us all on the stage of human plotting and folly, an audience member was enlisted to act as the Notary signing the wedding certificate in the final scene.
All of this stage business had the effect of transforming what could be a venerable if stale classic into a bella invenzione, capturing Rossini’s very creativity and youthful brilliance. Two salient features warrant special mention. First, the performers were so wonderfully at home with the Italian that it did not occur to me for a second that they were not Italian. Not only was their enunciation of rapid patter singing and the recitatives flawless, but also, they viscerally conveyed the Italian spirit with infectious body language. Luck had it that discretion stopped us from humming along, like a timeless audience in Rome’s Trastevere, complicit and identified with the music! Conversely, the shrewdly pared down supertitles allowed us to follow the story while still focusing on the singing. And what singing it was! Alisa Jordheim, in particular, made such a spectacular Rosina that I couldn’t help but think that she had singularly inspired the whole Barbiere project. What a voice! And what a grasp of the role! When Figaro realizes that he “must take lessons in cunning from her,” we realize that she has been leading her own plot of liberation all along …
Ocampo-Guzman’s second remarkable move was to convey a genuinely dark underbelly to the context of the surface farce. Right at the start, he had the great idea of having the street musicians pull out switchblades when they felt they hadn’t been paid enough; similarly, Rosina’s predicament as the potential victim of Bartolo’s abusive lust was highlighted by his flashes of anger and threats of violence. Jason Budd’s Bartolo was absolutely terrific: foolish and conceited, ridiculous and despotic, he was no toothless old man but a predatory bully, firm in his sense of right and might over others with despicable fatuousness. (Yehudi Wyner’s Ambrogio, with a mute gesture expressing the desire to stab him in the back, conveyed the hidden odium of Bartolo’s unseen treatment of his servants.)
The “Zitti, zitti, piano piano,” in which Almaviva, Rosina, and Figaro confidently sneak towards the ladder that is no longer there, bumping into each other in their “rush” to escape, struck me as particularly hilarious and successful―a paradoxical Rossini decrescendo in its own right ― revealing youthful desire and idealism as the elemental sources of emancipation and resources of human providence. Similarly, Lebow’s rendering of the immensely difficult final aria Ah, il più lieto with its staccato-tremolo succeeded in adding yet a new color of triumphant youthful idealism over a dysfunctional status quo, affirming how an active embrace of carnavalesque self-invention can be a form of resistance through which to exorcise demons from a repressive society.
Performances continue Friday and Sunday: Tickets HERE
Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.