Washington National Opera’s The Barber of Seville: Is It Too Funny?

There was every reason in the world to like Wednesday night’s performance (May 2) of Washington National Opera’s The Barber of Seville.  In fact, I can heap praise on this production.  It had some of Rossini’s most popular music, a great cast, great singing, traditional staging with costumes and sets that are a pleasure to behold, and comedy galore.  Of three reviews I’ve seen (see sidebar), all have praised it.  So, maybe before going further you should read Charles Downey’s professional review; it is insightful, balanced, well-written, and covers all the major points knowledgeably.  If, however, you’d like to know what the Grinch thinks, read on.

There are two significant factors that restrained my enjoyment, one a personal preference and one I ascribe to the performance.  First, I was not really excited about seeing The Barber of Seville once more.  It is a great opera and every opera fan should see it at least once; most will want to see it more than once.  However, I have reached a point in my opera journey where I look forward more to attending less often performed operas, rediscovered masterpieces, new works, or just something I haven’t seen before.  I will say, however, that Saul Lilienstein did pump me up somewhat.  His pre-opera talk was excellent; he discussed The Barber of Seville as a grandchild of the Commedia dell’Arte, the early theater of Italy and many of whose principal characters are represented in The Barber, including Figaro in the Harlequin role, Rosina in the Columbina role, and Dr. Bartolo in the Pantolone role.  His presentation did heighten my interest and provided me with a wonderful new perspective on the comedic beginnings of The Barber.

 Figaro (Andrey Zhilikhovsky), Almaviva (Taylor Stayton), and Rosina (Isabel Leonard). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Figaro (Andrey Zhilikhovsky), Almaviva (Taylor Stayton), and Rosina (Isabel Leonard). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Director Peter Kazaras' unrelenting slapstick comedy, however, got piled a little too high for me (sorry, Harlequin)  You have to get in the spirit and ride the wave of that sort of thing, and I never did.  You might think that saying The Barber has too much humor is like saying that a person is too beautiful, but think about it this way: if you like tea, maybe a spoonful or two of sugar will make it more enjoyable, but what about four or five or ten spoonfuls of sugar; at some point the sugar is out of balance and starts to detract from everything else.  And for Barber, Mr. Kazaras had almost three hours to add sugar.  The characters are supposed to be funny, but not only funny; what about tenderness, passion, sympathy, etc.?  I want to develop feelings for each of the characters.  What about other elements – anticipation, intrigue, suspense – sacrificed here to slapstick?  Is there a directing term equivalent to mezza voce?  I think getting the right amount of comedy should be the goal, not how much can be packed in, even for The Barber of Seville

 Dr. Bartolo (Paolo Bordogna), Ambrogio (Matthew Pauli), Rosina (Isabel Leonard), and Almavira (Taylor Stayton). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Dr. Bartolo (Paolo Bordogna), Ambrogio (Matthew Pauli), Rosina (Isabel Leonard), and Almavira (Taylor Stayton). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

If you don’t know the story of The Barber of Seville in Italian by composer Giachino Rossini and librettist Cesare Sterbini - Figaro, a barber/fixer and arranger of all things in eighteenth century Spain undertakes helping Count Almavira secure the hand of Rosina, the ward of Dr. Bartolo who plans to marry Rosina himself.  Bartolo is assisted by the effete music teacher Don Basilio.  Disguises and plots abound until our two young lovers are united with a happy ending for everyone except Dr. Bartolo.  Standard Commedia dell’Arte stuff, but throw in Rossini’s music and arias and you have great opera stuff.

 Ambrogio (Matthew Pauli), Don Basilio (Wei Wu), and Paolo Bordogna (Dr. Bartolo). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Ambrogio (Matthew Pauli), Don Basilio (Wei Wu), and Paolo Bordogna (Dr. Bartolo). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Some specific comments on my more positive responses to the performance:

First, let me give Mr. Kazaras some credit – much of the humor is funny.  Ploys such as having Figaro offer Almaviva a guitar, then open a door and bring out a woman playing a guitar is unexpected and genuinely funny.  With a little balance, I would gladly bow and applaud.

 A sample of the lighting, costumes, and choreography with soldiers, Figaro (Andrey Zhilikhovsky), Almaviva (Taylor Stayton), and Rosina (Isabel Leonard). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

A sample of the lighting, costumes, and choreography with soldiers, Figaro (Andrey Zhilikhovsky), Almaviva (Taylor Stayton), and Rosina (Isabel Leonard). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

I also give credit to the set and costume designers Allen Moyer and James Scott (sadly, now deceased).  The costumes and sets were lovely and conveyed the setting, time-period, and light-hearted mood of the story perfectly.  Mark McCollough’s lighting was effective and Rosa Mercedes met the challenge of arranging choreography for such an action-filled play that sometimes had the stage filled with players.

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard plays Rosina and is a delight every moment she is on stage.  I heard her sing in Cold Mountain a few years ago and was impressed.  I think she sounds even better now and she showed a sparkling comedic touch.  She reminded me of what I felt when Susan Graham walked onto the stage in WNO’s Dead Man Walking - Professionalism and quality singing at that level makes it easier to relax and enjoy the show; you know you are in good hands.

Newcomer baritone Andrey Zhilikhovsky made a fine Figaro as advertised, charming, funny, and possessing a pleasing and forceful voice.  However, his ingratiating swagger and comedic smarter than thou attitude gets masked after the first few scenes, lost in the helter-skelter mugging and running about to spin the comedy.

The other singers in the cast are uniformly excellent.  Tenor Taylor Stayton seemed perfectly cast as Lindoro/Alfonso/Almavira in his many disguises.  His voice timbre and singing reminded me a bit of Juan Diego Florez.  Bass Paolo Bordogna played Bartolo with relentless comic zeal, often quite funny, but which to some degree obscured what I think probably is a very nice voice.  Wei Wu playing Don Basilio put the opera world on notice that his booming beautiful bass voice and stage presence are forces to be reckoned with.  Even governess Berta played by Alexandria Shiner in her first season as a Domingo-Cafritz young artist got in a shiny aria for her efforts.  Baritone Christian Bowers who played Fiorello in the beginning scene garnered attention with his distinctive voice.

One character in a non-speaking role having a big effect was Matthew Pauli, who played the servant Ambrogio.  His character’s sole purpose is quite appropriately adding to the comedy in a silent movie style and he was extraordinarily effective.  In fact, I think his antics provided space not used to develop the other characters in a little more depth.  If any Marx brothers’ movies get remade, give him the role of Harpo.

I thought Conductor Emily Senturia and the orchestra gave a fine rendition of Rossini’s score whenever I could turn my attention to them which was infrequent given the almost non-stop action on the stage.  I can say that I went home humming several of Rossini’s melodies.  And kudos to Washington National Opera for allowing some refreshing diversity on the podium.

 WNO's The Barber of Seville Gay Finale. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

WNO's The Barber of Seville Gay Finale. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

I certainly don’t mean to discourage your attendance, especially if you’ve not seen The Barber of Seville before, but be prepared and jump on the humor train early.  I simply offer one opera fan’s perspective that I’ve not seen mentioned elsewhere.  Did Director Kazaras overdo the comedy or am I a sour pus Grinch?  You be the judge.  One of my opera neighbors at the performance would undoubtedly point the finger at me.  I heard him say leaving the performance, “Well, that certainly brightens up the week.”  God knows, we need that.

The Fan Experience: I left my driveway in Tyson’s Corner at 4:59 pm heading into rush hour traffic on Rte 123 and I-66 for the 12.5 mile trip.  I arrived at the Kennedy Center parking garage at 5:50 pm and sailed right into the parking deck, making it easily to the 6:15 pre-opera talk held in the Opera House, which I greatly recommend.  The KC Café (cafeteria) has undergone further changes to speed up flow through since my last trip – the salad and soup bar is now serve yourself, but the price is set and not determined by weight as far as I could tell.  And the machines are now used to dispense the wine.  For DC the prices are reasonable, if not modest.  In both the Hall of Nations and the Hall of States there are new art exhibits that looked pretty cool.

The Barber of Seville has five more performances on May 7, 11, 13, 17, and 19.  The cast for the May 17 performance only will be changed, with several of the major roles to be played by Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists.  Read the details at this link.