Opera Review: Washington National Opera's "The Barber of Seville"

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 14, 2009

Opening your opera company's season with "The Barber of Seville" is like starting a dinner party with a platter of Buffalo wings. "Barber" is the quintessential operatic comfort food: It's funny, it has great tunes, and it exudes, to a regular opera-goer, the warmth of familiarity. It signals a down-home kind of season -- the kind that might lure ticket-buyers during a recession.

But it raises two questions. First, of course, how good are the wings? And second, how are they going to go over with what is possibly a vegetarian crowd -- that is, non-opera-goers?

Apart from the glittering Washington National Opera opening-night audience at the Kennedy Center on Saturday, about 19,000 people gathered at Nationals Park for a free live simulcast of the production on the stadium's Jumbotron. Before the curtain, they got to watch the Bugs Bunny classic "The Rabbit of Seville" -- through which the "Barber" overture has penetrated the consciousness of, I would venture to guess, the majority of non-opera-goers.

It was to newbies that much of the event was tacitly pitched -- down to the joint appearance, before the curtain, of WNO President Ken Feinberg and Washington Nationals President Stan Kasten. Kasten showed a deft touch by acknowledging the partnership of two great local institutions: the world-class WNO and the world-class . . . venue where the Nationals play. He got the first laugh of the night.

In the opera house, many laughs followed. This production of "Barber" is directed by David Gately, who has evidently never met a piece of cliched stage business he didn't like. Don Basilio (Eric Owens) is a kleptomaniac who wanders into Bartolo's house lifting everything he can find into his capacious pockets. Bartolo (Donato DiStefano) has an ill-fitting black toupee which -- surprise! -- falls off.

And Rosina, who in her opening aria portrays herself as endlessly cunning and willing to play a hundred different tricks to achieve her ends, was compelled to act out those "tricks" as lumbering practical jokes (gluing Bartolo's slippers to the floor, putting ink on his napkin so his face turned black when he wiped it, and so on). Though it's Gately's first time doing this work at WNO, it's not his first time with some of these gags: He used similar ones at the Virginia Opera in 1990.

It was all perfectly amiable and full of goodwill, and the audience was in stitches. Such "humor" is a part of a certain kind of operatic convention. It's also pretty dumb.

What redeemed the evening, to this ear, was the terrific singing of the romantic leads, Lawrence Brownlee and Silvia Tro Santafé as Count Almaviva and Rosina, both making company debuts (true also for most of the cast). Brownlee, already familiar in Washington, brings a beautiful high voice with a heroic warm quality that makes it clear why people suspect there may be a lyric tenor (a slightly larger vocal type than a coloratura) lurking inside. He can do the showy fireworks that the role requires with aplomb, as he displayed in the tour de force eight-minute final aria, "Cessa di più resistere," which was every bit the show-stopper it needs to be. But almost more exciting than his long chains of florid notes was the simple sound of his voice, which is ardent and warm.

Since Brownlee is an increasingly familiar figure in American opera, Tro Santafé was perhaps the evening's real revelation. Certainly she was an equal delight, her small body emitting a big hunk of sound. Any really good Rossini mezzo establishes a firm vocal foundation in the lower register, atop which to construct her high flights of musical fancy (see Ewa Podles and Marilyn Horne). Tro Santafé was right in line with this tradition, laying down big warm low notes which, as the voice ascended, opened out to reveal a shining, secure top. Rosina is a part taken by both mezzos and sopranos; Tro Santafé offered qualities of both. It was only too bad that Gately's stage business, particularly during her opening aria, distracted from her singing.

This was a problem for some of the other singers, as well, particularly Owens. His "La calunnia," a time-honored comic set piece, lost much of its vocal core and color and was even drowned out at times by the orchestra. DiStefano sang solidly behind his character's incessant mugging. Cynthia Hanna, a current Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist, got off to a good start in the one aria allotted to the sneezing maid Berta, but her voice tired by the end. It was unfortunate that Gately's idea of how to stage the storm scene in Act 2 was to fill it with a chase sequence between Berta and Ambrogio, the other servant, that actually evoked the back-and-forth of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd -- but not as quickly or wittily.

The orchestra, under Michele Mariotti, sounded at times as if it hadn't quite returned from its summer break yet; on the other hand, Mariotti was quite attuned to details, so that the Overture moved from sluggishness to animation in a way that at least kept one paying attention.

Any baritone singing Figaro has to work hard not to be a crowd favorite. Simone Alberghini did fine. His voice is not the most beautiful instrument, but it is reasonably effective. Gately envisioned him as a stage director, manipulating all the action, starting and stopping events with a snap of his fingers. All very clever, if you buy into the convention.

"The Barber of Seville" repeats Sept. 14, 15, 16, 17, 19 and 20.

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