in: Reviews

August 19, 2018

Seigniorial Rights, Modern Vendettas

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Joshua Hopkins as Figaro in “The Barber of Seville.” (Karli Cadel photo)

A visually and kinetically powerful West Side Story contrasted with Barber of Seville, which, while admirable in many aspects, did not quite work. On the evidence of the two performances I witnessed on August 11th, though, the Glimmerglass Festival continues to cast with fine singing actors

Il barbiere di Siviglia, justifiably Rossini’s most popular and enduring opera, music exudes charm, wit, parody, subtlety, drama (the storm), and wry observation of humanity. The libretto, by Cesare Sterbini, remains quite faithful to the Beaumarchais play, rhythmically and contextually; one outstanding example is his stream of adjectives describing the foolish, self-important, dottering Dr. Bartolo, which Rossini adapted so faithfully with a stretta. Rossini’s reverence for Mozart and Haydn is evident; this reviewer, listening the week before to Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 at Tanglewood, was struck by how much its gleeful last movement must have appealed to Rossini, especially for such arias as Don Basilio’s Calunnia. The protagonist, Figaro, is Rossini’s “onstage surrogate,” wrote Richard Osborne. Rossini himself noted to God, “I was born for opera buffa, as you well know.”

Unfortunately, the “family-centered” staging distanced us from Rossini’s superb blend of humorous music and libretto, notably in Act I, in which the antics of Commedia dell’arte-like chorus figures dominated many scenes. They held up placards, hauled around outsized props (that barber pole), and hurled bright-red moneybags onto the stage with disruptive thuds. Consequently, concentration became diverted, and major characters’ input occasionally seemed lost in the commotion. Benefiting from an abundance of shenanigans and subterfuges, and needing little else. Act II improved dramatically.

Many were the pluses. From the orchestra’s very first measures of deliciously light trills from the strings, it was obvious things were in good hands under conductor Joseph Colaneri. Rosina (Emily D’Angelo) sang with ravishing clarity the bel canto elements, and her embodiment of the role stood out. Joshua Hopkins cut a fine figure as Figaro, cavorting and singing, with gusto. Dale Travis is a tried-and-true veteran of the role of Dr. Bartolo. As Count Almaviva / Lindoro, David Walton certainly made a stirringly impression, as did Timothy Bruno’s Don Basilio.

Vanessa Becerra as Maria and Joseph Leppek as Tony in “West Side Story.” (Karli Cade photo)

Bernstein’s West Side Story, a cooperative take on Romeo and Juliet with Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim, opened with a set that drew immediate, justified applause. The exterior wall of a brick tenement with fire escape stage left, the façade of an Italianate hotel with neon sign stage right, and three stark silhouetted water towers in the center clearly and dramatically depicting the urban streetscape of a poor section of New York. The lighting enhanced each scene appropriately for the changing dramatic moments of the story. David Charles Abell deftly directed Bernstein’s score; primarily for winds and percussion, it  alternates jazzy and Latin motifs to evoke the rival gangs. The oboe seemed the perfect instrument to dominate. Bernstein loved jazz—“never wholly sad or wholly happy … hardboiled quality that never lets it become sicky-sentimental,” he wrote in The Joy of Music, and that was true of its use here. Bernstein’s premise, which he set down in the 1950s, was that “the line between serious music and jazz grows less and less clear.” It is a prediction validated.

This is a co-production with Houston Grand Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago. The performers must not only sing but dance, with strenuous and lively choreography. The singing was almost entirely in unison, with much spoken dialogue throughout, all of which says “musical” rather than opera. The voices reflected that. Tony (Joseph Leppek), Maria (Vanessa Becerra), and Anita (Amanda Castro) did justice to their roles. The production seemed especially a credit to the admirable Young Artist Program established at Glimmerglass 30 years ago, which does propel the young singers on to notable careers.

The story, so rooted in the 1940s–’50s, nonetheless resonates with today’s political scene. Consider how Anita and chorus wonder if life is better in Puerto Rico or “America.”

Bettina A. Norton, emerita editor of the Intelligencer, is a retired museum professional. She has published widely in her field, American historical prints, and in later years, was editor and publisher of The Beacon Hill Chronicle. She has been attending classical music concerts “since the waning years of World War II.”

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