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[Updated] Opera Review: 'Barber of Seville' at L.A. Opera

November 30, 2009 |  4:55 pm
Barber 1 

Los Angeles Opera’s cute, clever new production of “The Barber of Seville,” which opened Sunday afternoon at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, includes spectacular singing from talented, agile comedians. The costumes are witty. The spirit is light. The pratfalls are plentiful. The jokes are many. Rossini’s popular opera is for everyone, and everyone on stage seemed to have quite a time.

And I’ll say this for Emilio Sagi’s production, which was imported from Teatro Real Madrid and turned over to Javier Ulacia to stage in L.A.: It is cunningly critic proof. If I hope to include as few spoilers as possible, I should reveal practically nothing.

I can tell you that sight gags and clowning are plentiful, reducing the plot to essentially a series of skits. Some laughs are cheaper than others, and if you don’t find something funny at first, maybe you will the second, third or fourth time. But even if this show exceeds your cute quotient, as it does mine, Sagi’s silliness deserves to be a surprise.

Unfortunately, you’ll need to bury your head in the sand (or at least avoid photographs and put off, until after the performance, reading Mary Jane Phillips' excellent Rossini essay in the program book) to avoid having the high-concept playfulness of Renata Schussheim’s harlequin-like costumes ruined.

So on to the cast. Right now the Chandler is a house of singers, what with the current runs of Handel’s “Tamerlano” (which ends Tuesday) and this “Barber.”  Everyone in “Tamerlano” is terrific. Ditto “Barber.”

The big draw is Juan Diego Flórez (he of the high Cs), making his debut in an L.A. Opera production. As the Count, who disguises himself in order to win the ward of an overbearing lecherous old doctor, the Peruvian tenor goes through his many escapades tossing off vocal flourishes left and right as he athletically covers the stage and hops on tables. His sensationally versatile voice is on the slender side for the Chandler, but his arias brought down the house.

Ktsxsanc Still, it was Joyce DiDonato, in her company debut, who dominated. The American mezzo-soprano has, in the past few years, won over the Rossini crowd in most of the world’s opera capitals, and on Sunday she stole a show that was hard to steal. Hers is a full, rich, hall-filling sound, yet her roulades rolled off her tongue with unbelievable ease. She is a natural actress as well, and she even handled Sagi’s cutesy leg-kicking business with flair, while retaining her dignity.

In his white suit and two-toned shoes, Nathan Gunn is a suave Figaro. His conniving barber who helps the Count free Rosina from the doddering Doctor Bartolo might have been a smooth college prankster. Gunn is just as smooth a baritone.

As Bartolo, a plump, funny Bruno Praticó displayed what might well be the fastest patter in the West. A light-on-his feet Fatty Arbuckle, the Italian bass-baritone was, I thought, a riot. Andrea Silvestrelli’s Don Basilio, the corruptible singing teacher, boomed as Basilios must. Kerri Marcinko’s Berta, the elderly serving housekeeper, was an amusing cigarette-toting toughie.

Michele Mariotti, a rising star in Italy, conducted. At only 30, he has been appointed to succeed Daniele Gatti as principal conductor of Teatro Comunale in Bologna, one of the top Italian opera companies. But despite his youthful appearance, he led “Barber” like an old man, which traditionalists will consider impressive. He favored the flighty tempos and even-handedness of old-school Italian opera conducting.

There is more to Rossini, with his powerhouse rhythmic sensibility and his amazing musical wit, than this vanilla approach. But Mariotti can probably be thanked for the tightness of ensemble. But for a production that plays with the idea of color (I’ll say no more), something similar in the orchestra would have been exciting.

On Dec. 5, a cast of young emerging singers takes over the production for its three performances.  Anything can happen.
 
 -- Mark Swed
 
  
"The Barber of Seville,"
Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave.,
See www.laopera.com for schedule and casts. $20 to $260. (213) 972-8001, Running time: 3 hours, 9 minutes.

[Updated: An earlier version of this story said a second cast would take over the production for the final three performances. In fact the two casts will alternate and the second cast will sing Dec 5, 12 and 19.]

Photo: Bruno Praticó (top), Juan Diego Flórez and Nathan Gunn in Los Angeles Opera's new production of "The Barber of Seville." Joyce DiDonato (below). Credit: Anne Cusak/Los Angeles Times

Related stories:

Joyce DiDonato breaks the opera diva mold

Nathan Gunn and opera barihunks hit a muscular note

Opera review: 'Tamerlano' at L.A. Opera

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