I don’t mean to, but I often come to the Virginia Opera with low expectations. It’s a regional company, and its performances in the Washington area are at a university performing arts center, about a 45-minute drive out of town. And I often come to standard repertory works, try as I might to keep an open mind, with a certain sense of obligation.
And yet the Virginia Opera consistently thwarts low expectations — as it did again Saturday night with its charming “Barber of Seville” at George Mason’s Center for the Arts. I often complain that opera today has lost its sense of fun, but it was certainly there in Michael Shell’s production (originally from Opera Philadelphia), which set the action in a colorful, circuslike Seville around the 1960s, and managed to be actually funny without resorting (I’m looking at you, supposedly humorous Metropolitan Opera production) to tired shtick. And there were some fine young voices. Indeed, the evening held its own, vocally and dramatically, with many of the comic forays by the much larger Washington National Opera.
One reason I went to this “Barber” was to see the Figaro of Will Liverman, who impressed me this summer at the Wolf Trap Opera. And indeed, Liverman is a consummate pro: an excellent singer and performer, although I thought his warm light baritone limbered up and took on more color in the course of the evening, and sounded a little small in “Largo al factotum.” He was stymied, though, by the production concept that decked him out, anachronistically, in 19th-century garb. I think he was intended as a circus figure, a go-between linking the playful and the real, but it meant he had uphill work in a show that landed its comic hits through humorous updating.
The evening’s real strengths proved to be Megan Marino as Rosina — singing cleanly and warmly and un-self-consciously, not afraid to use her chest voice — and, unexpectedly, Matthew Burns as Dr. Bartolo, who in this production, and thanks to Burns’s strong performance, became the comic focus. Bartolo was reimagined as a stuffy eye doctor with a penchant for chickens (why chickens? well, why not?), and Burns sang him so well that he consistently dominated the evening and emerged as a foil for Rosina’s spunkiness. In the music lesson scene, when he got up to sing Rosina an aria made famous by a castrato (it’s in the libretto), he actually rendered it in a countertenor register, lapsing repeatedly into his natural voice to make it extra funny.
Not everyone was quite on the same level. Andrew Owens, as Almaviva, was capable and funny (particularly in his masquerade as a hippie music teacher, complete with sitar), but his voice was small enough that it was hard to hear; there’s surely a way to open up that instrument. Christopher Job made an unusually young and attractive Basilio, played as a kind of lounge singer — again, funny, but without the full vocal power to back it up. By contrast, André Chiang was an unusually strong Fiorello — let’s hear more from this singer — and Olivia Yokers made the most of Berta, in this reading a young and attractive servant who proves to be Bartolo’s perfect match. John Baril’s uninspired conducting wasn’t calculated to lift anyone to new musical heights, but it got the job done.
Critics, and outsiders, tend to judge a company by the unusual things they do: world premieres, new work, or thoughtful pairings like Virginia Opera’s last production, which juxtaposed Weill’s “The Seven Deadly Sins” with Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.” Audiences, though, feed on the staples, the “La Bohèmes” and “Carmens” that critics often don’t attend but that are sometimes the highlights of the season for regular operagoers. Would that they were all done as well as this lovely “Barber.”
The Virginia Opera’s next production, Weber’s “Der Freischütz,” comes to Fairfax on Feb. 4 and 5.