The Wolf Trap Opera Company opened its 17th season last night in the Barns with a bright, brisk, brilliant performance of Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" that sets a high standard for remaining productions.
This company starts fresh each year, recruiting all its singers in auditions held across the United States and giving Washington a rare opportunity to see some of the stars of tomorrow. Like all of the company's productions, this "Barber" is a tribute not only to the fresh voices but to the acting talent and sheer professionalism of young American singers.
Strictly speaking, what they performed last night was not "The Barber of Seville" but "Il Barbiere di Siviglia." Given a choice, the cast voted to perform the work in Italian. This probably means that some of the singers are thinking of international careers. And the quality of their work indicates that they should.
"Barber" is a good opera for a company like this. It does have a plot, but its real interest lies in a series of showoff numbers: a tenor serenade, a fast patter song for Figaro, Rosina's "Una voce poco fa," Basilio's "La calunnia" and Bartolo's "A un dottor," for openers. They follow one another at a frantic pace; there are also the ensembles, the tenor's two comic disguises, the invasion of a platoon of soldiers and the little showpiece "Il vecchiotto," given to the otherwise undistinguished role of the housekeeper Berta and sung impressively by Margaret Jane Wray.
The orchestra has its showcases -- in the overture, for one, but most notably in the brilliant little tone poem describing a thunderstorm that introduces the final scene. It is a small orchestra but well-chosen and sensitively directed by Richard Buckley. The chorus (all male) had only minimal singing assignments but acquitted itself well vocally and visually, first as the musicians in the opening serenade and later as the soldiers.
All of the solo singers were good, but Richard Byrne (a native of Bethesda) stood out (as the music and text require) in the title role. He sings with precision, energy and imagination, giving full value to words as well as tone. His gestures are dramatic and illustrative, helping greatly to ease the language barrier in a kind of performance that has now become rare -- one sung in a foreign language without surtitles.
His comic flair (and that of tenor Stanford Olsen, who sang Almaviva) was greatly enhanced by Andrew Foldi's stage direction. In the aria in which Figaro outlines his plan for the Count to sneak into Bartolo's house in the guise of a drunken soldier, for example, a coat rack with military jackets, wigs, belts, etc., is brought on stage, and the Count is transformed (complete with a slightly crooked mustache) before the audience's eyes. Olsen does not seem to be a naturally talented actor (few tenors are), but in this well-directed production his comic acting is as impressive as his singing of the serenade. He is less convincing when he simply portrays a smitten lover, but one can expect only so much.
David Mayne Pittsinger sang the role of Basilio (greatly enhanced by makeup that gave him a corpselike pallor) as though he had been doing it all his life. His gestures were larger than life, enormously expressive and intensely comic, particularly in "La calunnia" but also in the Act 3 "Buona sera, mio signore" ensemble.
Emily Manhart's Rosina, sung with a rich mezzo-soprano voice, is a sly and lively young lady who knows exactly what she wants and will settle for no less. By the end of the opera, Bartolo (Alan Held) should be glad that his scheme to marry her has been thwarted. He would not have lasted a month in conjugal bliss with her.
At least this is the impression deftly created by Held, who manages to work up some towering rages but also shows a kind of human weakness that almost makes one feel sorry for him -- particularly in the middle of his indignant aria "A un dottor," when he has what looks like a heart attack, takes a pill without missing a beat, and regains his vigor. Well, he is a doctor, after all. Judging by the list of roles in his biography, Held (only six years out of college) is becoming something of a specialist in old men's roles. If his Bartolo is a fair sample, he does them superbly -- but we will be able to judge that question in more detail next season when he sings in four of the Washington Opera's productions.
The focus of this production is, rightly, on the music. This is generally very well performed and well served by the acoustics of the Barns -- Washington's finest hall for opera, now that the Washington Opera has abandoned the Terrace. But the nonmusical details are also carefully handled. Jeffrey Schneider's sets are good-looking and functional, as are Marie Anne Chiment's costumes. Above all, Foldi's stage direction maintains interest and sustains a sense of continuity in a show that has some strong centrifugal elements. One of the best ways this was done was in the eloquent though wordless performance of Abraham Dobkin as the servant Ambrogio.