Monday, January 17, 2011

The Bachelor of Seville

Coburn w Brownlee.jpgOkay, last week we were fooling around in the lobby with The Barber of McCaw. This week it's time to get serious with a rollicking show that could be called "The Bachelor of Seville."

The more-than-suitable suitor is Count Almaviva. The rose? Technically, it doesn't show up until Rosenkavalier a full century later, where it's pure invention on the part of Richard Strauss. We have to make do, in Gioachino Rossini's hilarious opera, with the notion of a romantic serenade. The commedia dell'arte genre requires a collection of stock figures: a young hero, a beautiful heroine, an old meddler, a dashing soldier, and so on. Youth versus age, servants versus masters, women versus men. Rossini, not yet 24 when Barber premiered, was clearly on the side of the newcomers, the subjugated, the females.

Figaro, well, he's the barber at a time when barbers did a bit of everything, from shaves & haircuts to bloodletting to mailing letters. A Fixer, if you will, or, in the Seattle Opera staging of the piece, a combination reality show host, field producer and location manager.

And lest we forget, there's a hefty element of "American Idol" here as well. Each of the characters is called upon to sing an aria (or two) designed to showcase their best stuff. In the Saturday cast, Lawrence Brownlee blew the field away with a dazzling and rarely performed aria at the end of the opera, "Cessa di piĆ¹ resistere, Resistance is futile."

The two Rosinas, Sarah Coburn and Kate Lindsey, do their best as well with duelling versions of Una Voce Poco Fa, a sort of "Dear Diary" that starts with dreamy thoughts of the man behind the voice that has just serenaded her, then digresses into a headstrong "my guardian's not going to push me around" fantasy.

Every character lives in a fantasy, it turns out. Figaro thinks he's a sought-after big shot capable of fixing anything; Almaviva thinks he's irresistible (he serenades the audience, not his beloved); the doddering Bartolo thinks he's reasonable and charming; Basilio spins empty-headed evil plans of slander. Only the housemaid Berta knows the truth, that the cruel march of time is threatening to leave her an old maid. Sally Wolf, who sings this part, has the vocal chops to play leading roles; in fact, she's a semi-retired diva with a long list of starring credits. Far from being wasted in a minor role, she reminds us of what depth Seattle Opera has when it comes to casting its supporting singers.

Dean Williamson does double-duty in the pit, keeping up the frenetic orchestral pace and playing the fortepiano during the recitatives as well. Peter Kazaras had the pleasure of directing many of his former Young Artist Program performers and resisted the temptation to turn Barber into slapstick, with the notable exception of the first half closer. Seriously, colliding robots? Bachelor, I mean Barber, is plenty funny without another layer of artifice.

In the end, of course, love conquers all, Rosina graciously acccepts Almaviva's figurative rose, and even the bad guys are accorded a measure of respect. It's an opera without a mean bone in its body, The Barber of Civility, if you will.

Seattle Opera presents Gioachino Rossini's Barber of Seville, through Janusary 29 at McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer Street, Seattle. Tickets cost $25 to $208; during a Family Day matinee on Jan. 23, up to four $15 student tickets can be purchased with one full-price ticket. Tickets are available by phone (206-389-7676), at the box office (1020 John St., Seattle), or online.

Photo: Soprano Sarah Coburn with tenor Lawrence Brownlee, Seattle Opera photo © Rosarii Lynch