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Lucas Meachem as Figaro [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of the San Diego Opera]
07 May 2012

The Barber of Seville, San Diego

Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’ classic play The Barber of Seville, set by Rossini to perfectly paced and irresistibly comic music, was first performed in Rome in 1816, and remains one of the world’s favorite operas.

Gioachino Rossini: The Barber of Seville

Count Almaviva: John Osborn; Figaro: Lucas Meachem; Rosina: Silvia Tro Santafé; Dr. Bartolo: Carlos Chausson; Don Basilio: Alexander Vinogradov; Berta: Suzanna Guzmán. Conductor: Antonello Allemandi. Director: Herbert Kellner. Scenic Director:John Conklin. Costume Designer:Michael Stennett.

Above: Lucas Meachem as Figaro

Photos by Ken Howard courtesy of the San Diego Opera

 

In 2011 it was performed 440 times in 79 cities, a fact that would have pleased French writer Stendhal, author of a fascinating, though alas, inaccurate “biography” of Rossini. Charmed as Stendhal was by the “whipped cream and fanfaronades” of Rossini’s operas, he is said to have worried about what would happen to The Barber when it was as old as Don Giovanni.

But there we were, nearly two hundred years later, sitting in the San Diego Civic Center, still being charmed by Rossini’s “whipped cream and fanfaronades”, though now decked out with twenty-first century gags, pranks, and production techniques. The San Diego production, created by John Copley in1989 for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, was a stylishly directed and delightfully performed production that lived up to the opera’s reputation. Its setting, about which more later, was inspired by Belgian surrealist René Magritte.

This was an excellently selected cast with experienced Rossini stylists and three singers new to San Diego. Milan born conductor, Antonello Allemandi, debuting with the company, led the orchestra in a joyously fleet performance of the overture. Rossini tenor John Osborn, a veteran of countless (quel pun!) Almavivas, who recently scored a success in title role of Rossini’s Otello, sang his first scene “Ecco ridente” with clarity and lovely phrasing — though unfortunately, amidst a sinister looking crew of black-cloaked musicians. The appearance of Lucas Meachem making his San Diego debut as Figaro, however, sent sparks flying. There’s no doubt that any one who portrays Figaro, the protagonist of Beaumarchais’ three plays (all made into operas) in which he must rescue Count Almaviva and Rosina, has got to be a commanding presence. It is likely that Beaumarchais, a commoner, who hobnobbed with French royalty (he had dealings with both Louis XV and XVI) modeled Figaro on himself. Figaro may have been factotum to all of Seville, but Beaumarchais was factotum to all of France. Born Pierre-Augustin Caron, the son of a watchmaker — he gave himself the “de Beaumarchais” title somewhere along the line — his escapades were far more world shaking than those of Figaro. Among other things, he was involved in a secret French mission which smuggled arms to American revolutionary forces. San Diego Opera’s factotum, baritone Lucas Meachem, who was debuting with the company, fit the bill. A large man, who dwarfed the cast, he easily “Figaroed” his way into the audience’s heart in a production that had him sliding down to his shop on a brass pole.

BARB1044.gifJohn Osborn as Count Almaviva and Silvia Tro Santafé as Rosina

Spanish mezzo soprano Silvia Tro Santafé, also making her San Diego debut, was a charming Rosina, whose darkly colored voice had all the coloratura and trills that go with the role. Fellow Spaniard, bass, Carlos Chausson, a veteran of more than 200 performances of The Barber of Seville, portrayed her guardian. Though Chausson sang with gusto, as the slimmest, spriest Dr. Bartolo I’ve ever seen, he brought a different view of the character. The production also marked the San Diego debut of Alexander Vinogradov. The thirty-six year old Russian bass, who made his Bolshoi debut when he was twenty one, made a perfectly dour looking Don Basilio and sang his great “calumnia” aria with aplomb and style. Mezzo soprano, Suzanna Guzmán, as Bartolo’s housekeeper, portrayed a mellower Berta than most.

As to the Magritte inspired production — the best that can be said of it, is that it was irrelevant. It added nothing to the opera, but fortunately, took nothing away. Plump little white Magritte clouds motionless on blue skies, were imprinted on the backdrop and on Almaviva’s and Rosina’s blue final scene wedding clothes. The clouds were also fixed on the peach colored walls of Figaro’s shop. There was lots of red in costumes and furnishings, lots of furniture askew. There were floating chairs, oddly placed derby hats, and the storm interlude featured folks rushing back and forth with windblown umbrellas, as if Rossini, master of storm music, wasn’t telling you that already.

BARB1130.gifThe cast of The Barber of Seville

The final scene in this production included the Count’s “Cessa di più resistere”, a difficult aria that Rossini, famous for his musical recyclings, reset as “Non più mesta” for the contralto heroine of his next opera, La Cenerentola (Cinderella). “Cessa di più resistere” has only recently been restored to The Barber of Seville with the arrival on the operatic scene of young tenors able to handle its fiendishly difficult fioratura. John Osborn is one of them, though there was a certain dryness in his voice late in the opera at the performance I attended.

I’ve often wondered what gives The Barber of Seville its appeal. Its love story? Boy and girl are manifestly fated to be together. Two actsful of complications keep them apart. Then in act three, problems are resolved, and the lovers (and audience) go home believing in “happy ever after”? Even if you throw in a prince, that can’t be what makes me want to see it again and again. That it’s revolutionary? Demonstrates that a clever, unschooled barber can solve problems that a wealthy, cultured aristocrat cannot? Sure, in its 1775 French theatrical version. Not for free old me in San Diego in 2012. That it’s a humanistic tale? Inveighs against social injustice, and portrays flawed, complex characters with whom each of us can identify? Possibly.

All these theories have been advanced, and likely others I haven’t yet heard of. But I think it’s simpler than all that. Lazy, melody-laden Rossini with his gift for musical humor threw together the right pieces of music for Beaumarchais’ brilliantly funny, humanistic, revolutionary, love story, and created a work, not only (as Stendhal feared) right for his own time, but for…well, for two hundred years, anyway.

Estelle Gilson

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