I went Thursday night (July 23) to see and hear Rossini’s comic masterpiece, Il Barbiere di Siviglia as part of the Brott Music Festival in the McIntyre Theatre at Mohawk College Fennel Campus.
I’d seen them do opera before, Aida two years ago, but that show was made up of excerpts and a narrator. This was to be presented with action and in costume but in front of the orchestra, thus without a set. This seemed like a reasonable compromise, certainly better than a concert performance. None the less, I was curious to see what sort of choices director Ellen Douglas Schlaefer would make.
I’ve always had difficulty reconciling Rossini’s Il Barbiere and Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. Il Barbiere, written later, is a prequel. Le Nozze is a continuation of the same story with some of the self-same characters that appear in Il Barbiere some ten years later in the plot. The vivacious, self-possessed Rosina from l Barbiere morphs into the tragic Contessa in the Mozart opera. To me, these two woman are not believably the same person at different stages of her life.
The explanation is relatively simple. Both operas are based upon Beaumarchais’s satirical late 18th C. French plays. Le Nozze is largely concerned with the relationships between nobles and their servants. Librettist da Ponte stays very close to the original French in his singable Italian text. This is something I discovered when I was preparing an English translation of some Le Nozze for a chldren’s show, comparing the libretto and the play. In Il Barbiere, Rossini’s librettist, Cesare Stervini, takes Beaumarchais’s premise and populates it with sterotypical Commedia dell’arte characters: Dr. Bartolo, the lecherous old man, Rosina, the bright, scheming soubrette and so forth.
So the characters in Mozart’s opera, like those in Beaumarchais’s plays, seem like real flesh and blood people whereas those in Il Barbiere don’t and were never intended to.
Incidentally, Il Barbiere was and Le Nozze would be good choices for Brott Opera’s purposes. While they are part of the standard repertoire of opera houses they are also frequently presented in opera studio and opera school settings both in complete performances and in excerpts. The arias are party pieces of many advanced students.
All in all, it was a remarkably satisfying evening. They started promptly at 7:30 and, even with one intermission, were done by about 9:45. The full COC production last year ran two hours and fifty-five minutes. So I wouldn’t even have been in car for the drive home until after 11.
The orchestra gave a stirring performance of the familiar overture and the presence of a full orchestra made a big difference in the overall effect of the performance. When I last saw the opera performed by Opera Hamilton at Theatre Aquarius it was with a seriously reduced orchestration.
In spite of not being in a pit, the orchestra never covered the soloists. When the 16 male choristers, standing behind the orchestra, joined the other players in the two acts finales they all certainly made a big, impressive sound.
The staging was entirely fitting given that there was no balcony for Lindoro to sing to, no ladder or staircase to climb and little furniture to toss about or fall over. There was appropriate staging and business, a little movement in time to the music and there were the usual pranks and sight gags. At one point, for example, the long suffering Berta, who has been offering drinks from a tray to no avail, has been ignored by all the other characters, stood alone at centre-stage. She looked perplexed for a moment and then sneezed on the glasses. It got a good laugh from the audience.
The singers were uniformly good both in singing and acting. On the opera-singing-food-chain, they are all one step below those who performed in the aforementioned Opera Hamilton performance but the show didn’t suffer for that.
Christopher Dunham was a charming Figaro, singing a spirited Largo al Factotum to begin the first act. He sang and acted the role with ease and confidence and, as Figaro must, he carried the show. He also actually played the guitar on-stage for Almaviva’s second aubade, and skillfully I may add.
Tenor David Menzies was a bright voiced Lindoro/Almaviva. His coloratura singing was clean and tasteful, his acting convincing. I was disappointed that he didn’t interpolate any extra high notes into his aria as is usually done.
Jeremy Ludwig sang Doctor Bartolo, portraying him as a not-very-old fellow with respiratory problems. I found this an odd directorial choice. Usually, Rosina doesn’t want to marry him because he’s a creepy old man. In this case she doesn’t want to marry him because he’s a creepy, sick man. Ludwig sang the part well and did some very funny falsetto vocalizing in the singing lesson scene.
Mezzo Charlotte Burrage was an understated but, ultimately, convincing Rosina. Immediately after the frenzied duet between Figaro and the Count, Rosina must make her first entrance and match their intensity in her celebrated aria, Una Voce Poco Fa. Burrage didn’t really do that. Her singing, however, grew stronger as the performance went on. On the other hand, she possess a lovely, lighter mezzo voice which is a better match for the lyric tenor with whom she so often sings than a more dramatic mezzo would be.
Baritone Keith Lam sang the duplicitous Basilio nicely and displayed a flair for physical comedy that kept him in the spotlight throughout his scenes.
Soprano Hélène Brunet stepped up, demonstrating a strong voice and comic sense in an entertaining rendition of Berta’s woebegone aria which separates the major scenes of the second act.
Baritone Aaron Durand capably sang Fiorello in the opening and the Police Officer in the two finales. I look forward to hearing him again in a more substantial part.
Next season Brott Opera will present an opera highlights concert, as they did last week, and then the orchestra will move into the pit of the McIntyre Theatre for a performance of what is, perhaps, the greatest opera of them all, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Brott and the Academy Orchestra last performed it in a concert performance in 2004.
Like Il Barbiere and Le Nozze di Figaro, it is sometimes taken on in school and studio productions so it’s a good fit and young singers can tackle it successfully. You do need two outstanding bass baritones and a couple of very capable sopranos. Maestro Brott told the audience Thursday night that no fewer than 150 singers had auditioned for Il Barbiere in New York and Montréal so I have no doubt they will be able to find young Canadian opera performers who are up to the challenge.
The Brott Festival moves back into orchestral music next week with Music of the Americas including Violinist Lindsay Deutsch playing John William’s beautiful Suite from Schindler’s List.