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The Barber of Seville

O Glorious Cheesy Triangle!

"Il Barbiere di Siviglia", Rossini’s best known work, is a facile and silly confection, and according to Opera America, the fifth most performed opera in North America. Like Mozart, to whom he was sometimes compared, Rossini was a prolific and lighting-quick producer of music. He wrote this opera in just thirteen days -- the zippy, spontaneous delivery is evident in the work.

It’s considered the definitive specimen of opera buffa (comic opera) and there’s hardly a serious note in the piece. Not that that’s necessarily a big problem, but I think it’s a great challenge for authors or performers of comedy to include a tinge of melancholy to temper the impact, like a bit of salt in the crust of a cherry pie. Underneath the fluffy surface, this opera has loads of what we today would identify as abusive relationships and patriarchal misogyny, which ought to qualify as suitable sources of existential angst, for the women characters at least. But while the San Francisco Opera’s current production does evoke the alienation and frustration of an upper-class female trapped in her posh cage, it’s strangely the set, not the singers, that conveys this most effectively.

Opera buffa originated as a kind of refresher course, or intermezzo, for opera seria (literally, serious opera), a style that was written for, and depicted, the upper classes rather than the common man. Like commedia dell'arte, from which it evolved, opera buffa was intended for a broader audience and dealt with more prosaic problems and situations. Pratfalls, physical comedy, and a very short list of character stereotypes -- the greedy, domineering old man, the young lovers, and the trickster servant -- make up the basic formula.

The drift of the story is what I call the “cheesy triangle”: old guy in love with young woman in love with young guy. Count Almaviva (John Osborn), a wealthy and powerful local nobleman, has fallen hopelessly in love with the young and lovely Rosina (Allyson McHardy), who unfortunately happens to be a virtual prisoner or “ward” (whatever that means -- adopted daughter, female object, love slave?) of the possessive, paranoid Doctor Bartolo (Bruno di Simone), who keeps her ensconced in his pristine Bauhaus mansion.

The besotted count, hiding his identity in order that his beloved see his true nature untrammeled by thoughts of endless cash, with the aid of his trusty and crafty main man Figaro adopts a series of goofy disguises in order to slip past Doctor Bartolo’s jealous vigilance and get his groove on with his love thang, who’s more than willing to return the favor. It’s all “O Glorious Moment of Love” for these two.

In Count Almaviva’s side of the ring is Figaro (Nathan Gunn), the archetypal jack-of-all-trades and namesake of the opera, and his shiftless band of light fingered, vaguely Mafioso local boys, led by Fiorelo (Eugene Brancoveanu). On Doctor Bartolo’s side is the sinister, obsequious Don Basilio (Phillip Ens), Rosina’s music teacher and probable CIA operative. In the middle are Don Bartolo’s servants Berta (Catherine Cook) and Ambrogio (Ricardo Herrera). Various hijinks ensue. Lots of fast singing happens, with fancy colatura arias. Love triumphs in the end and Almaviva, finally revealing himself as a prince (despite never quite being a frog) gets the girl.

The performances in this production are a bit uneven. By far the best singers are Mr. Di Simone, Ms. Cook, and Mr. Gunn. The two leads, Allyson McHardy and John Osborn, fail to completely inhabit their roles, and their projection was underwhelming. They were not helped much by the orchestra, which noticeably lagged in several places, was mushy in others, and at times was slightly out of sync with the singers, creating the kind of tension you have when you’re riding a fast horse and slip out of the stirrups a bit.

Mr. Osborn does deliver in his big aria, but Ms. McHardy does not in hers. Despite the lightness of this music, there’s ample opportunity to imbue this role with a lot more feeling and delivery than she demonstrated. My favorite performance was Berta’s aria, in which she vents all her suppressed anguish and frustration in a heartfelt outpouring of emotion. Don Basilio also has a memorable aria, in which he gleefully describes the poisonous effects of slander, that reminds us of Handel in its rich and colorful evocation of the subject matter- sibilant whisperings and slitherings evenly building to a crescendo of sadistic, diabolical ecstasy.

But the production is almost what we used to call a “setsical,” rather like Beach Blanket Babylon. It’s the set that’s the star here. A spectacular moderne, Richard Meieresque Rubik’s cube of a Pacific Heights mansion; it’s evidently the largest set ever built by the San Francisco Opera. It’s really an exquisite piece of architecture in its own right, beautifully detailed and appointed with Corbu chairs, gracefully understated plantings, and recessed downlights galore. Plus it rotates, giving the action a whirling, dizzying effect that’s perfectly in tune with the music. Aside from being beautiful to behold, it has a chilling, sterile, rather sinister effect as the heroine’s exquisite prison from which she longs to flee into the arms of her beloved. It’s a bit jarring, however, to encounter architecture from a Jacques Tati film along with costumes that range from early nineteenth century mountebank to fifties couture.

We of a certain age remember Rossini’s music not from real opera performances, but from cartoons and TV programs like the Lone Ranger that coopted it. That’s because nobody in Hollywood then could quite equal the popular appeal of his music, and its innate, shall we say, hummability: (Rossini melodies take residence in your brain and settle in for a few weeks). If he were alive today, he’d have eaten John Williams and Andrew Lloyd Weber for breakfast.

Of all the art forms, opera thrives on repetition, reinvention, and reinterpretation, and seeing it live brings back familiar music in a new setting, and refreshes archetypal stories of love, war, heroism, tragedy, and comedy. The San Francisco Opera on a passable night is still better than most opera companies on a great night, and it’s always a pleasure to savor an evening of music with our great civic institution.

The Barber of Seville
runs through November 30th
at the San Francisco Opera
Tickets: $30 - $245