Italian critic and musicologist Fedele d’Amico once praised Rossini for the “orgiastic spirit” and the “vital joy” of his music. This is most true of his most effervescent and famous opera, “The Barber of Seville.” Experiencing it with a good singers and musicians can be like an indulgent meal of cotton candy. A special matinee performance of the piece in Springdale, Arkansas lived up to hedonistic expectations. The cast captured the opera’s spirit through their talented singing and youthful charisma.
A Sly Figaro
Figaro’s milestone aria, “Largo al factotum,” comes early. As soon the Barber is on stage he has to knock out one of the most iconic arias of all time (thank you, Bugs Bunny). There’s a lot of pressure, but baritone Coburn Jones didn’t sweat it. He pulled it off perfectly. When I first heard Jones in last week’s excellent performance of “The Ballad of Baby Doe,” I sensed that his voice may have been taxed at certain points, but Figaro fits him like a glove. From the start he displayed distinctive clarity both in tone and diction. He handled the hurried mouthfuls Figaro has to sing with natural ease. Throughout, his phrasing was also top-notch, spitting out words with conversational ease without diminishing the rhythmic pulse. He handled the shaded dynamics of the role with its murmurs and whispers and blowhard loudness with panache.
Jones’ Figaro is a tried and trusted fixer. He seems charming enough and even nice, but in the end he is spurred to his cleverest exploits by the jingling of gold coins. In this production, set in 1920s Seville, his pinstripe shirt and tacky red tie make him look like a mobster capable of dirty things. But for now, since his powers are set on freeing Rosina from her master and uniting her with her true love, Jones’ Figaro comes off as an embraceable demimonde hero.
An Irresistible Rosina
The only one on set who is slicker and trickier than Figaro is Rosina, played here with wit and grace by Joylyn Rushing. In some ways Rossini and his librettist (Cesare Sterbini) are sure to keep Rosina within the confines of a solid patriarchy, trapped under the prison of Dr. Bartolo only to be released into the loving (but one imagines still domineering) hands of Bartolo’s social superior, the Count of Almaviva. But Rushing makes sure to show off Rosina’s strength. She plays the role with such confidence and forwardness so that we know anything Rosina gives, she gives knowingly.
Rushing’s interpretation of the showpiece “Una voce poco fa” was a little too speedy at certain points, but from the very start it was clear that she has real star potential. Her voice is warm and plush in the middle and demonstrates flexibility up and down her range with sweetness on top and gravitas at the bottom. She is a powerful stage presence. Especially in Act two, she conveyed ownership of the plot and her surroundings. She almost slithered with commanding grace until she got what she wanted.
An Almaviva (Lindoro) in the Making
Tenor Ira Stecher showed flashes of what might develop into a clean, shiny top register a la Juan Diego Flórez and a supple voice underneath that. He also showed some great comedic instincts, especially in Act two disguised as Rosina’s music teacher. On the whole, though, his voice did not quite meet the role’s demands . Almaviva’s Act one serenade is among the most beautiful music in the whole opera and its apparent simplicity is hard to pull off. It requires a refined legato supported by a secure technique. Stecher’s voice sounded a bit pinched throughout, especially as he ascended the staff. It sounded as if he lost control of his breath and as a result clenched his neck muscles in a way that did not allow his voice to resonate properly. As a result, his Almaviva came off less assertive than it should might have been. Almaviva (who presents himself as a poor student Lindoro, and later a drunken soldier, and later a music teacher) moves through this comedy by the force of his desire and he depends on Figaro’s brains, but he is still the one with social cache and the hard cash that make any effort to keep him and Rosina apart, as the original title of the opera suggests, a “useless precaution.” Here Almaviva seemed too subsumed by the events and characters that surrounded him.
Scene-Stealing Bassos & A View From Below
As the two unpleasant squares of the show, the Koady Goad and Vincent Gover delivered consistent laughs.
As Don Basilio, Rosina’s music master, Goad plays the role of self-interested henchman to Dr. Bartolo with requisite sliminess. He also showed off a resonant bass with a lot of bombast and punch in an excellent “La calunnia.”
When Gover was on stage as Rosina’s ward and wannabe husband, it was hard to take your eyes off him. Part of it had to do with his funnily ugly jacket (of varied forest and puke brown and green). Costume aside, Gover is an extraordinarily gifted comic actor. He invested his whole body to portray Dr. Bartolo as a laughably neurotic, germaphobic, uptight prig. His expressive face and superb timing brought down the house all afternoon. Gover has a solid voice as well with crisp diction and appropriate range of grunts and gasps to enhance the silliness of the character.
Mezzo Sarah Curtis played the short role of Berta, Basilio’s maid, to its fullest. She sang with a full-bodied mezzo, but her most important contributions were her judgmental eyes and uppity demeanor. She was the only one, along with the audience, fully in on the foolishness of her superiors.
Fools for Love
The theme of this Opera in the Ozarks season is “Fools in Love.” There’s no doubt that “Barber,” “Fledermaus,” and “The Ballad of Baby Doe” fit the bill perfectly. But I couldn’t help but notice another prominent theme among these operas: they all, to varying degrees, explore social divisions and tensions, often along class lines.
Perhaps Rossini’s opera does this less than the others. But it mustn’t be forgotten that the work is based on the plays of Beaumarchais, a social critic during the era of the French Revolution. For him, Spain was this backward place that had missed the Enlightenment and stood for all the corruptions of the Ancient Regime. Rossini’s opera gestures at all this as it exposes the hi-jinks of the wealthy and the savvy grit of the “common” folk.
This production emphasized merriment, but it also underlined the opera’s revolutionary qualities. When the lights went on, the audience saw a cubist interpretation of 1920s Seville drenched in red, pink, and orange. The world outside of Rosina’s confinement is filled with life and Figaro’s band of accomplices are bohemian artists and musicians. Inside Bartolo’s apartment, the colors are all muted beige with old master paintings dully hanging on the wall. When Rosina comes onto the scene she defaces a classical-looking bust and during the Act one invasion of the apartment by Almaviva (dressed as a soldier) and his “comrades,” they cover dusty old paintings with Picasso-esque sketches. These acts of defacement are important. They represent change is in the air. The marked difference between inside and outside the apartment is also telling. It represents a clash between classical and modern which is of a piece with the love story being told. The audience is witness to a battle between the liberty of the new and the oppression of the past. As director David Ward puts it in his program note: “The young people just want to be free, they want to enjoy the new things that life is offering, and they would prefer to do it without the old folks peering over their shoulders.” Joy can be revolutionary.