FAIRFAX CITY, Virginia, December 7, 2016 – Rossini’s legendary Figaro arrived in Fairfax this past weekend, all ready to regale opera audiences at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts not only with his vocal skills but with his renowned negotiating skills as well. Yes, we’re talking about the central character in Rossini’s eternally popular comic opera, “The Barber of Seville” (“Il barbiere di Siviglio”), as staged by the Virginia Opera as something of an alternative Christmas treat.
Much like “La Bohème,” “Carmen,” and other evergreen operas that pop up with alarming regularity on opera company schedules, audiences generally are enthused when “Barber” is in town. Like old vaudeville slapstick that somehow seems eternally new, so it is with this opera.
It’s hard to resist a tale in which a clever 18th or 19th century Deplorable can outfox the middle and upper classes with aplomb, obtaining a happy if chaotic finale in the process. Rossini’s lively music just makes the story better.
We’ve seen all manner of productions of this opera, most of them lively and colorful, although a recent Metropolitan Opera staging of the work went all Euro-gray on the audience, completely spoiling this work’s sense of fun—although this approach certainly was original.
The Virginia Opera’s take on the opera was the polar opposite of the Met’s approach. With sets, characters and costumes alike almost outrageously splashed with carnival or circus colors, director Michael Shell’s vision was to treat this work’s farcical plot like the three-ring circus it sometimes seems to be.
Unfortunately, he also confessed in the program what soon became obvious on stage: he actually has an intense dislike for this work and felt he needed to throw in al manner of distractions to keep the audience interested.
He needn’t have bothered. What he ended up creating was a complete and utter mess that, for all its visual pyrotechnics, actually succeeded in taking the fun right out of Rossini’s musical confection.
Among all this distracting nonsense was a running rooster metaphor, with seemingly dozens, perhaps hundreds of rooster images and virtual roosters showing up on stage whenever, and symbolizing… well, symbolizing exactly what was difficult to parse. Perhaps this was a look forward to 2017 which, in the Chinese lunar new year, will be the Year of the Rooster. Otherwise, this motif is anyone’s guess.
Fortunately for this production, the singing by the trio of principals and by a few of the major supporting characters provided what the production itself often lacked: character, motive and feeling.
At the top of their respective games were baritone Will Liverman as Figaro and mezzo-soprano Megan Marino as Rosina, beloved by tenor Andrew Owens’ Count Almaviva. The Count, with the creative assistance of Figaro, hatches various schemes to rescue Rosina—the ward of the cranky Dr. Bartolo (bass Matthew Burns)—from the Doctor’s house in order to marry her before her guardian manages to do the deed.
The starring trio of singers in this production seemed to catch the absurd humor at the core of this opera, with Ms. Marino in particular exhibiting excellent comic and vocal chops as a kind of “liberated” Rosina who’s able to hold her own in “Barber’s” still patriarchal world.
As the chief schemer in the plot to rescue Rosina, Mr. Liverman also grasped the absurdist comedy inherent in his character, Figaro, a barber by trade but a master fixer after working hours. He delivered Figaro’s famous Act I aria with conviction and humor and shone in every scene with a voice as clear as it was convincing in this, one of the top baritone roles in the history of opera.
Although his voice was perhaps not quite as forceful as those of Mr. Liverman and Ms. Marino, Andrew Owens’ clear, well-rounded tenor instrument completed this trio of schemers both vocally and in comic ensemble.
Finally, as the implacable nemesis of this trio of heroes and a heroine, Matthew Burns’ tart portrayal of Bartolo was the very model of a classic basso buffo role, heavy on the comedy and delightfully two-dimensional—perfectly suited to the cartoon villain Rossini’s score calls for.
The Virginia Opera Orchestra—primarily members of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra—played well under John Baril’s direction, making at least the music of this production worth hearing. But the crazy, hodge-podge sets and circus sideshow elements in this production ultimately proved mightily distracting, making this one of the least successful Virginia Opera productions in recent memory.
Next time, the company might do well to hire a stage director who really loves this timeless comic opera just as much as audiences have for nearly 200 years.
Rating: * ½ (One and one-half stars out of four)
Next up: Virginia Opera returns to the George Mason Center for the Arts with a new production of Carl Maria von Weber’s “Der Freischütz,” generally translated as “The Marksman.” Virginia Opera goes more creative, translating it as “The Magic Marksman,” which, perhaps, is more appropriate for this opera’s spooky plot.
Infrequently performed today, Weber’s music was popular in its day. However, this particular opera, which debuted in 1821, is regarded by most musicologists as the first important German Romantic opera.
Most opera lovers have never had a chance to hear this great work in a live performance, so Virginia Opera’s upcoming performances here on February 4 and 5 will present a unique opportunity for DC area audiences to see it. For a plot summary as well as tickets, information on Norfolk, Fairfax and Richmond area performances, click this Virginia Opera link.
Megan Marino and Will Liverman. Ben Schill Photography (for Virginia Opera), Rosina in Michael Shell’s production of Il barbiere di Siviglia