Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” has always been the gold standard for Italian opera buffa as it is based on the Figaro plays of 18th-century French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais. It seems that the buffa-style laughs and gags endemic to this masterpiece were not enough for Spanish director Joan Font, whose version is currently running at Houston Grand Opera.
What is it about Spanish directors and their unique – and downright bizarre – perspectives on some of opera’s famous works? Calixto Bieito causes a stir wherever his work is seen with a “Carmen” that is nearly 20 years old that bears little resemblance to Bizet’s best-known work. At least Bieito states plainly that his goal is to modernize operas by setting them in more relevant and recent time periods.
Font bears a lofty reputation as the founding director of the Barcelona-based Els Comediants theater group and his style worked with another Rossini masterpiece in a production of “La Cenerentola” seen in Houston and elsewhere. He and the creative team were not quite as successful with their take on “Barber” that saw some audience members heading for the exits at intermission of the performance seen Saturday night; the thought occurred to me to join them.
Forging Ahead Through Challenging Times
It should be noted, of course, that just to be having this season in Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey is a victory. The performances have been moved inside the George Brown Convention Center in a space dubbed HGO Resilience Theater after flooding rendered the Wortham Theater Center on the other side of downtown far from usable.
The temporary makeshift setting has forced the orchestra into odd placements. In this case, maestro Emily Senturia was forced to conduct behind the staging on the left side of the action with little chance of succeeding in bringing out a pleasing rendition of Rossini’s music.
So while this season at HGO hasn’t been an ideal operatic experience, the concurrent production of “Elektra” proved that terrific opera can still be produced under such difficult circumstances. Alas, this version of “The Barber of Seville” only proved that one of the opera world’s most hilarious works can be turned into a bore.
More Questions Than Answers
Part of what I found confusing was the dark setting in the initial scenes in Seville. Visually, there was little to look at during the famed “Largo al factotum” by Figaro portrayed by baritone Lucas Meachem in his Houston debut. The American wore a brightly colored outfit with the spotlight clearly on him but his presence seemed a bit minuscule in relation to the hauntingly drab scene around him.
The one positive for the unusual staging was how close Meachem was to audience members in the first row who were perfectly placed to enjoy his comic machinations. I’d be curious as to how Meachem, who has performed Figaro in many places, felt about this staging as compared to other productions. His Figaro was zany and silly but Font’s production did him no favors in giving him very little of an opportunity to showcase his physical comedy skills.
Even stranger was the triangular room that represented the barbershop that would occasionally light up in Act one. I never understood what was trying to be conveyed with that or why it was so dark to begin with. When the police try to arrest Almaviva disguised as Lindoro to close Act one, the result was chaotic with very little humor.
Everyone sang his or her role very well and the vocals sparkled with moments of brilliance. There are not many times that you see a “Barber of Seville” in which the most accomplished singer is Don Basilio with the superstar bass-baritone Eric Owens helming the role in the same kind of luxury casting as when he sang Neptune last season in “Idomeneo” at the Metropolitan Opera.
The issue was more that it felt like a night of individual brilliance on the part of each singer than any kind of cohesive effort from the group, with this staging playing a role in that as well. Bass Peixin Chen was excellent in his portrayal of the madcap Dr. Bartolo, who is suspicious at every turn that Rosina will escape from his clutches. Chen was a one-man show at times with his fussing and fretting and prancing about just like Owens was when he sang his entrance aria of “La Calunnia.”
Tenor David Portillo similarly exuded hilarity as Count Almaviva with his plotting to foil the witless doctor with mezzo-soprano Sofia Selowsky as the lovely Rosina he is trying to win over. Portillo hammed it up throughout while the up and coming Selowsky sounded bright and engaging in what was her role debut. Their best work together came when Almaviva arrives disguised as Rosina’s music teacher Don Alonso with the couple all over each other in full view of the seething Bartolo.
That scene occurs on a giant pink piano that served as the focal point of the second act. It was either one extreme or the other for Font; the staging either made little sense yet when it did, the effect was like being hit on the head with a hammer rather than with any semblance of subtlety.
I would be remiss not to mention an outstanding “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie” by soprano Yelena Dyachek as Berta in an effort that made the HGO Studio Artist as worthy of being on stage as her more notable colleagues. It was yet another example of this “Barber” succeeding only as vehicles for the singers.
I haven’t even mentioned the numerous supernumeraries that were sprinkled in throughout although what they were doing or what their effect was supposed to be wasn’t clear. Staging performances in the convention center was always going to create limits as far as the sound; the distracting and indecipherable visuals had little to do with the conditions and more about a production that took the fun out of this “Barber.”