The hall, a well-designed tent, may seat only 650 people, but there was nothing else “chamber” about the production of Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” (“The Barber of Seville”) that opened Lorin Maazel’s Castleton Festival opera season on Saturday. The orchestra, under Maazel’s direction, was big, made up largely of students who have come to spend the summer studying and performing under the auspices of the Castleton Foundation’s young artists program. The cast was mostly drawn from young singers who have established themselves in smaller opera companies across the country. And, although the stage wasn’t large, first-rate direction, imaginative (although occasionally overambitious) lighting and a compactly designed and flexible set gave the illusion of plenty of space.
But this was your grandfather’s “Barber.” No out-of-period costumes here. No attempt at updating. No swinging cage for Rosina to emote from (as Beverly Sills did in a production in the District some years ago), and no one, not even Figaro, made an entrance through the audience. In these respects it was old hat, as predictable as D’Oyly Carte productions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas once were — and as much fun. Maazel has assembled a group of good singers who can act, and stage director William Kerley has molded them into a lively ensemble with terrific timing.
The chorus members (part of the Castleton Artists’ Training Seminar) embraced their characterizations of scruffy musicians or doofus soldiers and cavorted with rollicking energy and good humor. The one un-grandfatherly aspect of the production — which added hugely to the fun — were the inspired, slightly edgy surtitles. The creator/translator ought to have been given his or her own bow, or a least a mention in the program.
There were some fine performances from individual members of the cast, but what stood out most in this production was the ensemble in the patter songs, those group sprints that dot the opera. There they were, five or six singers (or, sometimes, the whole chorus) scattered around the stage, some of them up on the balcony, nowhere near each other or the orchestra, racing through tangles of text with the lightness and precision of a tap dancer. Sure, there were moments at the end of the first and second acts when singers and the orchestra came unglued, but most of the time, they were amazing.
Jonathan Beyer’s Figaro and Tyler Simpson’s Dr. Bartolo were crafted with great comic appeal. Evan Hughes might not have had the vocal oomph for music teacher Don Basilio, but his acting was delicious, which more than made up for it. Both Tyler Nelson as the Count and Cecilia Hall as Rosina — made to straddle a line between comedy and romance — were more convincing in the romantic side of their relationship, although Rosina’s fury at discovering that her letter to the Count had been compromised was impressive. The smaller roles were well-handled by Christopher Besch, Conor McDonald, Valerie Nelson, Davone Tines and Andy McCulloch.
Maazel’s touches were evident in the orchestra’s performance, as was the fact that this was a student group. There were carefully groomed details in the overture — echo effects in the repetition of phrases, some sleekly sculpted (but oddly inserted) rubatos and nicely etched attacks. Its studentness was most evident in the orchestral balance, which, fuelled by overenthusiastic brass and percussion, got out of whack from time to time. But this was a happily charged, sprightly performance that maintained its energy and seemed to go quickly.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.