Libretto by Cesare Sterbini (after the play by Pierre Beaumarchais)
San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
Nov. 13 – Dec. 1, 2013
Well honey, he can cut my hair anytime. Rossini’s Figaro, probably the most famous coiffeur in the world, is delightfully showcased in San Francisco Opera’s new production (with Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet) of “The Barber of Seville,” sparkling with wit, delighting the eye and, most important, satisfying the ear. It’s definitely a cut above any I’ve seen before.
A six-foot tall bust of the composer dominates a black stage, as is appropriate since “Barber” is arguably the most tuneful score in his vast canon — and definitely the most popular. A glowing crescent moon rises and a troupe of flamenco dancers enters, similarly gleaming in white, to unveil a block of houses (also white) with grilles on the windows. And this is just the overture! This work could conceivably be retitled “The Barber of Barcelona” as the simple but fanciful designs (by Llorenç Corbella) call to mind the architecture of Antoni Gaudí for which that city is famous.
“Barber” is the old story of young lovers who, though thwarted by a mean and avaricious old man, win out in the end. But not without the help of the local barber, something of a jack of all trades — matchmaker, surgeon and general fixer. And this is what made it such a sensation back in 1775 when the French dramatist Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais first put it on the stage. Servants were not supposed to outwit their masters; young girls were supposed to be obedient to their guardians. The entire European social system depended on this structure, and poking fun at it amounted to a kind of political insurrection. In fact, Beaumarchais was something of a political activist himself, involved in both the American and French Revolutions. The “Figaro” plays were years in getting through the French censors, but make it they did, inspiring Mozart, Rossini and others to set them singing.
The singing in San Francisco is paramount. The rising American baritone Lucas Meachem lends the title role a cynical panache that suits the character well. And he sings the heck out of the part. Meachem may be the star, but vocal honors for this particular cast are split between Mexican tenor Javier Camarena, an astonishing singer who had me — if not his Rosina — at the first notes of his opening serenade, and Isabel Leonard, whose face and figure are as lovely as her voice. Alessandro Corbelli is the repressive guardian, Dr. Bartolo, and, not only does he sing well, but he is also very, very funny and a perfect foil for the lovers. Ditto for the indispensable Catherine Cook as Berta, the housemaid, wonderful both in solo and support. In fact, the entire cast seems to be having so much fun it’s infectious. (Editor’s note: The double-cast leads in this production alternate at different performances; see video below for a preview of Audun Iversen, Daniela Mack, Alek Shrader and Maurizio Muraro.)
Even the costumes are witty, especially in the second act, where designer Pepa Ojanguren does things with flowers and serapes that have to make you smile. Giuseppe Finzi conducts, and the San Francisco orchestra never sounded better. The director, Emilio Sagi, deserves a bow of his own for making his native Spain come alive for us in such a delightful way, and his compatriot Nuria Castejón a curtsey for her choreography. The whole thing ends in a burst of fireworks, both vocal and literal, as the happy lovers drive off into the night — in what I cannot tell you lest it spoil the surprise.