Story: Youthful and famous Count Almaviva becomes smitten with a young woman named Rosina during the annual April Fair in Seville, Spain somewhere in time B.C. (before cell phones). Wanting her to love him for himself and not for his fame or money, he appears disguised as a student named Lindoro outside her door.
Rosina is more or less imprisoned in her house as the ward of the elderly Doctor Bartolo, who wants to marry her himself. She yearns for something more than being his assistant and sees possibilities in the student. Figaro, a self-proclaimed business whiz who says he is known as “The Barber of Seville,” tells Almaviva that he will help “Lindoro” win the heart of Rosina -- for a handsome fee, of course.
Highlights: Seems hard to believe, but Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has been around for four decades, a long-time fixture on the local cultural scene. To celebrate its 40th anniversary, OTSL presents one of opera’s most enduring comedies, The Barber of Seville, for the fourth time on the main stage at the Loretto-Hilton Center.
The capacity audience on opening night attests to the continuing popularity of this always upbeat, consistently entertaining gift to the world by 19th century composer Gioachino Rossini. A new English translation by Kelly Rourke, combined with some inspired stage direction by Michael Shell and the spirited conducting of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra by Ryan McAdams, makes this Barber a fresh, razor-sharp interpretation.
Other Info: Rossini’s most famous comic opera features an original libretto by Cesare Sterbini based on the 1775 play, le Barbier de Seville, by French playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. After a brutal opening night in Rome in 1816, it went on to great public acclaim and has maintained that popularity for two centuries.
Rourke’s new translation was commissioned by OTSL for its 40th anniversary, and the result is smart, savvy, silly and successful. Rosina here is not so much a helpless, forlorn maiden as a frustrated young woman chafing for fulfillment and escape from her secluded life.
This story is given an even more refreshing interpretation by director Shell, who says in his program notes that he was inspired by the fantasy films of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. “My design team and I turned to the films of Pedro Almodovar, which have all of the elements of a Rossini opera,” he says. “Almodovar is brilliant at walking the line between dramatic comedy and melodramatic absurdity…His films…embedded in Spain and Spanish culture.”
Shell alludes to Rossini “blending reality and borderline farce,” which is captured most effectively in this two-act, three-hour version. Despite the show’s length, the director’s pacing is bouncy and cheerful. The setting of Seville’s April Fair allows him to fill the stage with an assortment of festive entertainers, including a stilt walker who underscores the carnival atmosphere at heady heights.
Shoko Kambara’s set design is awash in gaudy pastels that give the stage a cheery, light-hearted appearance that is psychedelic in spirit and lends itself to the opera buffa performance. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting embellishes that look and style.
The setting is further augmented by a wacky array of costumes designed by Amanda Seymour that pays no attention whatever to time or place, focusing instead on supporting the broad comedy played out on stage. So, Figaro is dressed in a finely styled flowing robe circa 19th century while Doctor Bartolo and Rosina – and the furniture in his office -- are Mad Men-era Americana.
Adams brings out the effervescence and ingenuity of Rossini’s score, played with pizzazz by the orchestra and a handsome fit for Shell’s interpretation and homage to Almodovar.
Emily Fons, making her OTSL debut, possesses a strong, crystal clear mezzo-soprano which she demonstrates with command and control as Rosina. She’s capable with the comedy, too, playing nicely off of Christopher Tiesi’s Almaviva, Dale Travis as Doctor Bartolo and especially Jonathan Beyer in the title role.
Beyer and Tiesi also are making their Opera Theatre debuts and do so in grand fashion. Beyer’s gangly physique is a good match for his flowing wardrobe and thick mane of hair, courtesy of Tom Watson’s whimsical wig and make-up design. His smooth baritone further fits Figaro’s genial disposition.
Tiesi displays a good command of Rossini’s music and a capable comic touch as well. Worthy of particular attention is Travis, who handles a number of Gilbert & Sullivan-style patter songs with impressive vocal dexterity, while also effectively portraying the comic villain Bartolo.
Jeongcheol Cha, in yet another OTSL debut, brings a head-banger rock star approach to the role of Rosina’s music teacher, Don Basilio. It’s a star turn that blends comic acting and accomplished singing in a fine performance.
Eliza Johnson and Geoffrey Agpolo, a pair of OTSL Gerdine Young Artists, make impressive debuts with the parent company as Bartolo’s amorous governess Berta and his mute, shuffling servant Ambrogio, respectively. The latter is amusingly reminiscent of Arte Johnson’s ‘dirty old man’ on the old Laugh-In comedy series.
Benjamin Taylor, Johnathan McCullough and Todd Barnhill do well in minor parts that fill out this fun-filled tale.
The Barber of Seville is a time-tested treasure. This new interpretation commissioned by Opera Theatre is a time-defying but audience-pleasing romp that kicks off OTSL’s 40th anniversary season in sumptuous, spectacular style.
Opera: The Barber of Seville
Company: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: May 27, 29, June 4, 6, 10, 14, 17, 27
Tickets: $25-$129; contact 961-0644 or ExperienceOpera.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Ken Howard