A NEW BARBER IN TOWN
Rossini’s sparkler boasts stellar cast
by Jack Zimmerman
Figaro is a fixer, the guy who makes everything right for Rosina and Count Almaviva. He’s a man of many talents and the central character in Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), one of the greatest comic operas ever written. We first get to know him as he tells us he’s needed by everybody and has many places to be in the famous “Largo al factotum.”
Figaro’s clever, optimistic, and at times opportunistic, but always trying to help others. “He’s a modern man, and I try to get that across without turning him into a comedian,” says Lyric favorite Nathan Gunn, who sings Figaro in this new production of the Rossini classic. “I enjoy doing the part because it’s a big step out of who I actually am. Figaro’s an opportunist, but his intentions aren’t nefarious or selfish. He doesn’t want to hurt others, just do the right thing. He dislikes those who are corrupt and sneaky, and likes those who have good intentions and good will. I doubt I’d be his pal, but I’d probably enjoy having a drink with him once in a while.”
Rossini’s best-known opera is packed with plenty of coloratura arias, laugh-out-loud scenes, and memorable characters. It’s become such a part of us that it’s received a fair share of pop-culture references – for instance, the Bugs Bunny cartoon The Rabbit of Seville, which has introduced countless kids and adults to the strains of “FigaroFigaroFIGARO.”
Most impressive is the fact that Rossini’s classic has remained relevant – and more important, has remained funny – after almost 200 years of continual performance. By age 21, thanks to Tancredi and L’italiana in Algeri, Rossini was Italy’s most popular composer. He wrote Barber before he was 25 – not bad for a kid who apprenticed to a Bolognese pork butcher when he was 12!
The Barber story was adapted from French playwright Beaumarchais’ Le barbier de Séville. Beaumarchais wrote three Figaro plays in all. His Le mariage de Figaro inspired Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. All three plays mirror the changing social attitudes around the time of the French Revolution.
In The Barber of Seville the beautiful Rosina is pursued by Count Almaviva, but Bartolo, Rosina’s guardian, wants to marry her himself. Before it’s all over, the Count has assumed several identities: 1) a guy named Lindoro, 2) a drunken soldier, and 3) a music teacher, Don Alonso.
There’s a close call with Rosina feeling betrayed and briefly considering marriage to Bartolo, but through it all, with a good deal of scheming by Figaro and several comedic encounters, Rosina winds up with the Count, and Bartolo, accepting his fate, gives the couple his blessing.
While the story is amusing, it’s Rossini’s music that makes the opera so universally appealing. The opera is still entertaining because, as renowned opera scholar Philip Gossett puts it, “Rossini was careful to write into it his reactions to the conventions of Italian opera of his time. In his opening Introduzione, the Count sings his serenade to Rosina and the musicians follow with a typical Rossini crescendo. The point of the crescendo is to make more noise each time the melody is repeated, but the Count really wants the musicians to be quiet.
“Likewise, Rossini plays with the cabaletta – the quick section that concludes a musical number. Convention holds that the theme will be repeated a second time. But in this case Figaro tries to hurry the lovers along, only to find they won’t be hurried, and the ladder by which they had planned their escape disappears from under them! This is all part of what keeps the opera so amusing and so fresh all these years.”
For the past 25 years, the Barber seen at Lyric was the Magritte-inspired, John Conklin-designed production. This season Lyric audiences will experience director Rob Ashford’s take on the work with set designs by Scott Pask and costume designs by Catherine Zuber.
All are making their company debuts with this new Lyric production.
The Tony- and Olivier Award- winning Ashford comes from a dance background (he made his Broadway dance debut in the 1987 Lincoln Center revival of Anything Goes). A director of both drama and comedy, he’s scheduled to direct and choreograph Carmen at Houston Grand Opera next spring.
Pask’s work on The Book of Mormon earned him the Tony Award for Best Scenic Design of a Musical. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut with designs for Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes and has designed, among other operas, Albert Herring for Opera North, in Leeds, England.
“We wanted the scenic design to have the look and feel of 18th-century Seville,” says Pask, “infusing the comedic timing and movement of the opera throughout the transformation of the set, as it moves swiftly between locales, utilizing Rob’s extraordinary gift for musical storytelling.”
Zuber was the costume designer for the Met’s Doctor Atomic and has worked with the Canadian Opera Company, New York City Opera, Glimmerglass, and the opera companies of Houston and Los Angeles. “When considering the costumes for The Barber of Seville,” she says, “Rob Ashford felt the characters should reflect the time period in which the piece was written and have the flavor of Seville. The characters have delightful parallels with commedia dell’arte, creating the challenge to imbue the costumes with a restrained humorous silhouette. We also thought about the movement that the costumes could provide in telling our story.”
Italian-born Maestro Michele Mariotti, principal conductor of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna since 2008, will make his Lyric debut in this production. He conducted the Metropolitan Opera’s recent “Rat-Pack” Rigoletto.
In Lyric’s production, Rosina is sung by mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard in her much anticipated Lyric debut. She’s performed the role before, in Vienna and twice at the Met. But the very first time she sang Rosina was in Denver, six-and-a half months pregnant – and struggling with the altitude of the mile-high city. “That in itself was comic,” she says.
“I have never thought of Rosina as a spicy, manipulative, conniving person,” says Leonard. “She’s actually incredibly kind, sweet and gentle. This [marriage] is her last hope and she knows it. If this doesn’t work, she’ll have to marry Don Bartolo. She’s smart enough to take advantage of the situation.”
Count Almaviva is sung by Alek Shrader, who debuted at Lyric as Tamino in 2011/12’s The Magic Flute. The ultimate interpreter of Italian comic roles, the legendary Alessandro Corbelli sings the role of Bartolo. Corbelli was Dulcamara in The Elixir of Love here in the 2009/10 season. Basilio is sung by Kyle Ketelsen, who starred in the title role of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at Lyric in 2009/10.
Figaro may be central to the opera, but as Gunn says, “It’s really a story about a number of characters. Figaro never draws attention to himself, but subtly distracts people so that something else can happen. His goal is to get the Count and Rosina together. That’s my point of view when I come into the opera. Everything I say and do has one goal, which is to get those two people together.”
They do get together, and their story has delighted opera goers for close to 200 years. And it has delighted Lyricpatrons since the company’s first season 59 years ago, when Tito Gobbi was Lyric’s first Figaro. This production is sure to continue the tradition. As Figaro sings in “Largo al factotum”: “Ah, isn’t life good? How pleasant it is for a barber of class!”
On the Record
Roger Pines, dramaturg, and Jesse Gram, audience education manager at Lyric Opera, recommend these recorded performances:
Garanča, Gunn, Brownlee; Chorus of Bavarian Radio, Munich Radio Orchestra, cond. Gómez-Martinez. (Sony Classical)
Jones, Ford, Opie; English National Opera Chorus and Orchestra, cond. Bellini. (Chandos – SUNG IN ENGLISH)
Mentzer, Hadley, Hampson, Praticò, Ramey; Toscana Orchestra, cond. Gelmetti (EMI)
Bartoli, Nucci, Matteuzzi; Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Comunale/Bologna, cond. Chailly. (Decca)
Berganza, Alva, Prey; Ambrosian Opera Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra, cond. Abbado. (DG)
de los Angeles, Alva, Bruscantini; Glyndebourne Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, cond. Gui. (EMI)
Baltsa, Araiza, Allen, Trimarchi, Lloyd; Ambrosian Opera Chorus, Academy of St.-Martin-inthe-Fields, cond. Marriner. (Decca)
DiDonato, Flórez, Spagnoli, Corbelli, Furlanetto; Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera
House, Covent Garden, cond. Pappano, dir. Caurier and Leiser. (Virgin Classics)
DiDonato, Saccà, Jenis; Chorus and Orchestra of the Théâtre National de l’Opéra, cond. Campanella, dir. Serreau. (TDK)
Berganza, Alva, Prey; Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala/Milan, cond. Abbado, dir. Ponnelle. (DG)
Bartoli, Kuebler, G. Quilico, Feller, Lloyd; Schwetzingen Festival, cond. Abbado, dir. Hampe. (Arthaus Musik)
Ewing, Cosotti, Rawnsley, Desderi, Furlanetto; London Philharmonic, Glyndebourne Festival Chorus, cond. Cambreling. (Kultur)
Larmore, Croft, Malis, Capecchi, Alaimo; Netherlands Opera Chorus, Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, cond. Zedda, dir. Fo. (Kultur)
Bayo, Flórez, Spagnoli; Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Real/Madrid, cond. Gelmetti, dir. Sagi. (Decca)
Of special historical interest:
Köth, Wunderlich, Prey; Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayerische Staatsoper, cond. Keilberth, dir. List. (DG – SUNG IN GERMAN)