It was gutsy for a shoestring company like Opera DC -- that's even a new name -- to make its debut in its new quarters, as it did last night, with something both so difficult and so familiar as Rossini's "The Barber of Seville."
In recent memory, this chamber version of the finest of Rossini's many comic gems is up against a similarly conceived Terrace Theater production that is one of the high points of the Washington Opera repertory. Further, the Met brought a grander scaled version -- mounted for Marilyn Horne -- less than a year and a half ago.
Maybe "Barber" is not the wisest course for this resourceful five-year old enterprise as it breaks off from its former home at a Southwest Washington church -- hence the loss of its former title, Opera SW. It is resettling in the mellow coziness of turn-of-the-century of Carroll Hall at St. Patrick's Church, on 10th Street across from Woodies.
What would one expect to be the special benefits of such a production, which will be repeated tonight, tommorrow and three times more next weekend?
Well, they turned out to be the casting of the two most difficult parts -- those of the youthful ingenue, Rosina, and of the barber himself, the worldly Figaro, whose crafty intelligence provides the Count with skills in pursuing Rosina that His Lordship cannot alone command.
It is in these characters that Rossini, who knocked off this work at his usual pace (in about a fortnight), exhibits his greatest emotional involvement and also erects his greatest technical hurdles.
The most important thing about mezzo Mary Pat Finucane's Rosina is that she sings it as written, something that has eluded many of its familiar exponents. That most famous of bel canto mezzo arias, "Una voce poco fa," was actually sung low, in E major, just as the composer intended. Of course, it's very hard. But that combination of virtually contralto lows with dazzlingly articulated runs at the top -- in effect, like two separate voices -- is just what makes Rosina such a refreshing feat.
Likewise, baritone Lewis Freeman rose to the challenge of the two vocal arias of Figaro's part. In this case, the sustained notes were at the top -- at the points where the coloratura passages came to rests. Freeman's runs were agile, but those long notes were rich and beautifully controlled.
Neither singer was the ultimate in phrasing finesse, but they were lots closer than their peers -- taking into account the general excellence of bass Andrew Wulff's Don Basilio as well (he may have just one aria, "La calunnia," but what a brilliant one).
The best singing was better than one expected. And it helped compensate for the weakness of one of the production's most widely touted traits -- the fact that it was sung in English. The opening lines of "Una voce" were simply impossible for these ears to understand. At least if it's in Italian, many listeners know what's being sung even if not every syllable strikes the ears. Sometimes it was better not to hear last night's English. Somehow "La calunnia" began "Let me teach you . . . " which had nothing to do with the text. The answer is to stick with Italian and to use subtitles.
Among the other performers, tenor Joseph Myering was frequently under strain as Count Almaviva, Henry Burroughs was overwrought as Don Bartolo and Joan Morton was bland as Rosina's maid, Bertha.