The following review is based on the Thursday, November 9th performance. The role of Dr. Bartolo, which was hitherto portrayed by Paolo Bordogna, was played by Patrick Carfizzi who will again reprise the role for the Sunday, November 12th closing-day performance.
Those who experienced LA Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro earlier this year are in for an absolute treat because the charming Figaro and collection of loveable personalities around him are already back and funnier than ever in The Barber of Seville (through Sun, Nov. 12th). This time, however, it’s not Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte pulling the strings of what can be traced back to Pierre Beaumarchais’ original trio of Figaro plays, but Gioachino Rossini and Cesare Sterbini. Sequels, be it in any medium of expression, aren’t usually lauded for being more memorable than their predecessors, though in this case, a different composer and librettist have not only paid lavish homage to the essence of Beaumarchais’ characters, but provided the blueprints for a hilarious onstage illustration.
Combined with the precision on clear display by acclaimed director and choreographer Rob Ashford and conductor Louis Lohraseb, and a premier cast who have echoed an ambitious vision by the aforementioned two, LA Opera’s take on The Barber of Seville stands out as a boisterous opera buffa that overflows with such ebullience that it oftentimes transcends the very genre it’s in — appealing to both opera fans and the uninitiated, alike.
The premise is again a fantastic unspooling of disguises and deception — with love, jealousy, and revenge being the prime motivators. At the forefront of the hijinks is Count Almaviva who is smitten with the youthful and beautiful Rosina, but just can’t find a way to romance her because her guardian Dr. Bartolo desires her for himself instead. Figaro, a barber by trade, though versatile enough to excel at any task, including being the ultimate wingman, supports Almaviva’s endeavor to be loved not for his rank but for the individual he is at heart, resulting in the presentation of an alter ego: “Lindoro.” Figaro masterminds this strategy despite obstacles engineered by Bartolo and Don Basilio (music teacher to Rosina) who are intent on slandering the noble count. Still, a little bribery and some calculated subterfuge go a long way in fomenting an escalating series of events, each more satisfying and diverting than the last, which culminates with buoyant fanfare.
This new-to-Los Angeles production, straight from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, looks as splendid as it sounds — with a concave-crescent set, cream-colored columns, spiral staircases, arches, hanging light fixtures, a multitude of doors, gates, balconies, benches, and even an elegant fountain thanks to Scott Pask’s state-of-the-art scenic design. The lighting by Howard Harrison and Pablo Santiago is lush, saturated with the most glorious of blue and orange hues, which elevates the set and intricate Spanish-inspired costumes by Catherine Zuber — from Almaviva’s sightly trench coat, to Rosina’s coquettishly flowy dresses, Bartolo’s formfitting coats, Basilio’s formal graduate-remiscent attire, as well as Figaro’s mischievous burgundy jacket and cheeky striped pants.
The melodies and gorgeously sung arias, like all operas, are the main course that invariably makes loyalists out of spectators. But there is quite the garnish neighboring the vocal adroitness (inclusive of high-speed singing and an awe-inspiring rolling of Rs) exemplified by the cast, many of whom are making their LA Opera debut — and that includes waggish and whimsical non-verbal comic touches that put the proverbial cherry on top.
For instance, Joshua Hopkins, a Grammy-nominated baritone, understands and delivers his assignment as Figaro to perfection. “Largo al factotum” is regarded by many as the opera’s preeminent aria and, using his robust voice in tandem with his charismatic articulations, Hopkins takes ownership of it, deftly using the famous piece to ingratiate his persona to a grateful audience. In addition, because Figaro more or less takes the vantage point of the observer, Hopkins earns laughs as he slinks around the stage, taking inventory of what he sees and, toward the end of Act I, delightfully mirrors what onlookers might be thinking as his character puppeteers the oppositional characters — ostensibly frozen in time — in “Fredda ed immobile, come una statua.”
Tenor Edgardo Rocha similarly delivers a masterclass performance as Count Almaviva, made memorable by his warm timbre and ability to slip into different roles. The ponytailed Rocha, who moves as gracefully as a matador, evokes a sense of longing when he sings “Ecco, ridente in Cielo,” evincing an elite capacity to alternate registers without a loss of projection. Also, Rocha’s Almaviva shares a jaunty chemistry with Hopkins’ Figaro, and when the time comes to play the unassuming “Lindoro” — first as a tipsy solider and then as “Don Alonso,” a faux colleague of Don Basilio — Rocha is personable and hysterical while maintaining the seriously romantic intentions of his character.
The object of Almaviva’s affection is, of course, Rosina, portrayed by the award-winning Isabel Leonard who just finished a spectacular turn as Donna Elvira in LA Opera’s universally loved Don Giovanni. Here, Leonard inhabits a credulous ingénue, albeit empowered with determination and wiles, as compellingly as she did a scorned woman. For example, Leonard’s rendition of “Una voce poco fa,” comprised of lovely trills and beatific boomerangs of sound, conveys Rosina’s obedience but also a resoluteness to be free of Dr. Bartolo’s grip. Leonard is keen to not play Rosina too naively, giving the part a root-worthy purpose that fiercely resonates.
Dr. Bartolo and his partner in deceit, Don Basilio, are unquestionably the antagonists in a comedy that makes it all too fun to titter at their pitfalls. Bass-baritones Patrick Carfizzi and Luca Pisaroni play the respective parts with a rousing combination of flair and farce. In a wig coiffed to appear as two devil horns, Carfizzi emotes Bartolo, who is comically beleaguered throughout, with remarkable timing and skill. Shifting from envy, to control, and finally hopeless exasperation, Carfizzi’s Bartolo never stops being entertaining as he campily pouts, channels his feminine voice, and flamenco dances en route to a fittingly unfavorable outcome for him.
As Basilio, Pisaroni has an amazing presence about him, reminding of Severus Snape in Harry Potter, as his weasel-esque character skulks with a nefariousness that particularly crescendos with “La calunnia è un venticello” — an aria about shaming Almaviva’s image. Pisaroni’s vocal agility is impressive, too, as he modulates the volume of his voice, which resoundingly booms when necessary. Not to mention, the demonstrative Pisaroni is so well-cast that when his Basilio is shooed away in Act II, we are sad to see him leave.
Of the remaining cast members, Ryan Wolfe’s Fiorello gets the Italian opera off to a winning start in a lighthearted interplay with the LA Opera chorus (directed by Jeremy Frank), Joel Balzun depicts a Sergeant who becomes amusingly overwhelmed by a myriad of accusations, and Juilliard School-graduate Kathleen O’Mara, who plays Berta, Bartolo’s highly observant and insightful housekeeper, stunningly stakes her claim as a potential headlining soprano to be reckoned with in the years to come.
Last, but not least, one of the most fulfilling moments of The Barber of Seville, alternatively known as The Useless Precaution — a running joke that never wears out its welcome — is the famously galvanizing overture. Lohraseb’s fervency with the baton seemingly augments the stirring strings, tympani, and the vivacity of Rossini’s notes, which whip the audience into a triumphant frame of mind from the very outset until the opera’s feel-good conclusion.
Simply put, The Barber of Seville is as gratifying now as it was when it debuted two centuries ago. The winsome arias and adeptly delivered slapstick, amidst an overarching message of love (in all its madness) reigning over tyranny, fills receiving hearts with the utmost joy. To this aim, LA Opera’s production hits all the right beats in a tale that is amiable and agreeable to the senses. And who knows — given the success of The Marriage of Figaro and now The Barber of Seville — LA Opera fans might have Beaumarchais’ final installment of Figaro, La mère coupable, to look forward to down the line.
LA Opera’s The Barber of Seville closes on Sunday, November 12th (performance begins at 2 pm). For more information on the production, and to purchase tickets to the final show of the run, visit laopera.org.