This barber is the very same character known so well from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, but while both The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville are drawn from Beaumarchais, the former was based on the second installment of the playwright’s trilogy while The Barber is based on the first. (Thus it is clearly established that George Lucas did not invent the prequel.)
Written in an astoundingly brief couple of weeks, Rossini delivers first rate sparkle and wit throughout The Barber; the popular work has remained actively in the repertory since its premiere in 1816. No one will care that Rossini recycles his own material from time to time (he had used the overture before, for example), since this is music of such shimmery delight that only a cantankerous curmudgeon would cavil over its casual self-plagiarization.
The essence of the story is straightforward. (The complications get, well…complicated in the way that opera plots do–disguises, deceptions, misunderstandings abound). Count Almaviva enlists the support of Figaro to win the hand of Rosina. Disguised as "Lindoro," Almaviva woos Rosina and they fall in love. But Rosina’s guardian, stuffy old Dr. Bartolo, intends to marry his ward himself. That’s all you need to know, really, to carry you through the evening’s shenanigans. There’s also a Bartolo ally, Don Basilio, Rosina’s music teacher, who’s basso voice gets a terrific aria ("La calunnia") recommending slander as a way to get at the Count.
Indeed, Barbiere is so rich in invention and musical genius that one aria after another enchants the ear; these are seminal tunes of Western culture and even the opera novice will find them familiar. Figaro’s first act "Factotum" aria is a patter piece that adroitly reveals character with an abundance of humor. Rosina sings "Una voce poco fa," a richly melodic expression of young love that never fails to charm. And in the second act, Almaviva gets his turn to do the same as he expresses his joy at winning Rosina in "Ah, il piu lieto."
San Francisco Opera’s new production, designed by Hans Dieter Schaaf, is set in a brilliantly conceived, modern two-story house that fills the stage and rotates on a turntable to allow varying views of the exterior and the rooms inside. With a distinctly Bauhaus look, and the arrival of Figaro on a motor scooter, the 19th century has been left far behind (though the costuming is distractingly from varying periods). Left behind as well is the core theme of the opera which can be traced back to the Beaumarchais play, written before the French Revolution. Figaro, a working class adventurer, shrewdly manipulates the aristocratic Count and crosses the overbearing Bartolo, ultimately freeing the captive Rosina–it’s subversive, if not inflammatory, and it’s amazing that Beaumarchais managed to get it on stage in the face of Louis XIV.
Still, the SFO production emphasizes high comedy with clever direction by Johannes Schaaf who uses the revolving architecture with inventiveness and verve. Would that he had a bit more discipline about editing out some of his overgenerous supply of schtick–a servant dusting an anatomical figure is gratuitously used for cheap laughs, distracting unpleasantly from an aria by Bartolo. Granted the singing of this Bartolo (veteran Paul Plishka) was unpleasantly riddled throughout the evening by a fearsome wobble, the singer is still entitled to some respect. (Plishka’s comedic acting is superior.)
Similarly, Schaaf stages an extended stripping of Figaro’s motorcycle by a crowd of thieves, quite pointless, really, and equally distracting from the music. On the other hand, he brilliantly expands the small role of the servant, Ambrogio (Ricardo Herrera), having him present through practically the entire evening, wandering about the stage with an old man’s shuffle–observing the shenanigans of the principles with the detached resignation of his years of experience.
All three of the young principles are attractive and appealing performers. Mezzo-soprano Helene Schneiderman, as Rosina, displayed effortless technique in the tricky fioritura, producing a smoothly modulated and thoroughly pleasing sound from the deep chest register up to the highest bell-like tones. She’s an actor of charm and comic skills as well.
The Figaro of Nathan Gunn was poised and sung skillfully, though the character seemed to lack the bite it should have. Yann Beuron, a light tenor, seemed not to have warmed up sufficiently; his first act singing didn’t project and he occasionally wandered off key. In the second act, though, his Almaviva gained firmer ground, though this characterization, too, seemed to lack the darker side– the opportunistic womanizer that the Count’s history shows him to be.