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Performances

The Barber of Seville, Manitoba Opera, 2019. Photo: C. Corneau
27 Apr 2019

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

A review by Holly Harris

The Barber of Seville, Manitoba Opera, 2019. Photo by C. Corneau

 

The company last presented the 203-year old opera buffa in November 2010, with its newest incarnation stage directed by Montreal’s Alain Gauthier for its three performances held on April 6th, 9th, and 12th. The 185-minute production (including intermission) boasted a strong cast of five principals with Tyrone Paterson leading the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra with his customary finesse.

Based on Cesare Sterbini’s Italian libretto, the production now transplanted from the 1800s to early 20th century Seville is admittedly plot-shy, relying rather on its stable of colourful characters painted in broad brushstrokes to bring its narrative to life.

First up is Figaro, with internationally renowned Canadian lyric baritone Elliot Madore’s dazzling MO debut as the tall, dark and strapping barber exuding conviction and swaggering ease every time he took the stage during the April 6th opening night performance, his booming vocals that filled the hall matched only by his flashing kilowatt smile.

MbOpera_BarberOfSeville_APRIL4_0454.pngAndrea Hill (Rosina), Elliot Madore (Figaro), and Steven Condy (Dr. Bartolo) [Photo by R. Tinker]

He nearly stopped the show with his Act I entrance aria, “Largo al Factotum”, receiving prolonged applause with cries of bravo for his performance that only gathered momentum until his final, enthralling burst of tongue-twisting patter spat out with razor-sharp precision. It is hoped that the Toronto-born dynamo, who has also graced such illustrious opera houses as Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Zurich Opera House, Glyndebourne Festival Opera and Bavarian State Opera, among others, will return to the MO stage again – and soon.

Canadian mezzo-soprano Andrea Hill (MO debut) reprising her role of Rosina from Calgary Opera’s November 2017 production, also directed by Gauthier, instilled flesh-and-blood nuance into her all-too-human character, her growing exasperation at being shuttered away by Bartolo palpable.

Her opening cavatina “Una voce poca fa” immediately displayed her full palette of tonal colours, including a shimmering upper register and warmly burnished tones in her lower range. It also provided the first taste of her sparkling colouratura, as she nimbly scaled vocal heights with quicksilver runs, later heard as well during duet “Dunque io son...tu non m'inganni?” sung with Figaro.

Like Madore, Hill is also a crackerjack actor, possessing a flawless comedic timing that includes furiously plucking flower petals in rhythm during her colouratura passages, and mugging and mocking Bartolo during the Act II “lesson scene” that elicited open guffaws from the crowd.

American tenor Andrew Owens (MO debut) as Count Almaviva - first appearing as poor student Lindoro – admittedly had a tough act to follow with his own opening cavatina, “Ecco, ridente in cielo” performed in the riptide of Winnipeg baritone David Watson’s servant Fiorello (also doubling as the Notary), with the latter’s earth-shaking vocals always seeming a force of nature.

Nevertheless, despite a few minor intonation issues and balance issues with the orchestra that quickly settled, Owen’s supple voice as a true Rossini leggero tenor proved its expressive best during “Se il mio nome saper voi bramate”, accompanied by Figaro’s mimed guitar accompaniment, and sung with elegant grace.

American baritone Steven Condy (MO debut) created an imperious Dr. Bartolo who bellows orders to his charge, also not afraid to let his own hair down when warbling during his own number in falsetto after taking over from Rosina’s “The Useless Precaution” during her singing lesson. His “A un dottor della mia sorte” that ends with his own crisply executed patter did not disappoint, equally straddling both worlds of hilarity and threatening power that also fascinated.

Canadian bass-baritone Giles Tomkins likewise brought dramatic intensity to his role as Don Basilio, Rosina’s vocal tutor and ostensibly Bartolo’s slimy sidekick. His performance of Act I’s “slander” aria, “La calunnia” with its famous long crescendo in which he advises Bartolo to smear Count Almaviva’s name became an early highlight.

Special mention must be made of Winnipeg soprano Andrea Lett who threw herself into her role as whiskey-swilling, cigarette-puffing maid Berta. Her heart-wrenching Act II aria “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie” in which she reveals her fear of growing old without love became the opera’s poignant underbelly and sober second thought, sung with artful compassion.

Gauthier – who also directed MO”s production of Verdi’s La Traviata in November 2017 – wisely allows his cast to venture off-leash as the show progresses with the well-staged production (albeit a trifle “park ‘n’ bark” at times) eliciting frequent hoots of laughter from the crowd.

One of the comic highlights (naturally) included the lesson scene, with Almaviva, now disguised as mop-topped singing teacher Don Alonso appearing to channel the wacky spirit of Victor Borge complete with “air harpsichord” effects.

The highly stylized Art-Deco flavoured set originally designed by Ken MacDonald for Pacific Opera Victoria, evokes the swoops and angles of Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali, instilling a dreamlike atmosphere further heightened by Winnipeg lighting designer Bill Williams’s shifting rainbow of pastel hues, with all costumes designed by Dana Osborne, also for POV.

A recurring visual leitmotif of umbrellas held aloft and twirled at strategic points (mostly) by an all-male Manitoba Opera Chorus (prepared by Tadeusz Biernacki) created fascinating counterpoint to the voices. Pure magic also arose during Act I’s final chorus “Mi par d'esser con la testa” when the policemen’s “bayonets” suddenly morph into brollies. However, despite the tightly synchronized choreography, this clever idea began to feel too much of a good thing as overly fussy stage business, pulling focus from the leads also gamely navigating their own rain gear props.

The first Act alone clocks in at 105 minutes, with several scenes, including extended recitatives between characters needing to be tightened further. Still, the production’s palpable joy delivered with gusto by a well-balanced cast made one long for their own well-coiffed Figaro, able to fix all of life’s woes with a swish of his wrist and gleam in his all-knowing, watchful eye.

Holly Harris

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