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Opera review: 'Barber of Seville' in Santa Barbara

August 8, 2011 |  2:46 pm

Barber of Seville Rossini is hot in the international opera world. Imaginative musicians, directors and scholars are rediscovering the striking originality and inventiveness of his operas. There are dozens, most unjustly ignored, that are being freshly reinterpreted, which typically means scandalously provocative productions.

For its annual opera production at the Granada Theatre, Santa Barbara's Music Academy of the West stuck with the Rossini chestnut "The Barber of Seville." Sunday afternoon, at the second of two performances, the academy, which includes a famed vocal program run by the great mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, played it very, very safe.

This proved a “Barber” with an aesthetic that would have ruffled no feathers during the Eisenhower years. A parochial production enticed bright young talent into making opera hopelessly irrelevant to its generation, to anything whatsoever related to real life or what is going on in any of the opera houses that matter. Still, the Granada was full and the audience appeared to be enjoying itself very much.

One comes to the academy’s annual operas (which in the past has included slightly off-the-beaten-track repertory) to discover singers in their early 20s setting out on professional careers. Voices this year were big and flexible. The acting was enthusiastic. A handsome cast seemed gung-ho to put on a show. But I left Santa Barbara Sunday worried about these appealing singers. They will now be faced with unlearning a summer’s worth of bad habits.

The production, with sets by John Stoddart (from Canadian Opera) and costumes by Anna Björnsdotter (from Arizona Opera), was hopelessly old-fashioned. The direction by Bruce Donnell was embarrassingly hokey. Silliness, tired jokes and mugging prevailed.

It wasn’t only the stage and its business that was fusty, but the performance as well. Warren Jones, a pianist who is best known as an accompanist (or collaborative artist) to big-name singers, conducted. However animated in the pit or expert in supporting singers, he brought out little of the sparkle or wit of Rossini. As if Donnell's heavy-handedness wasn't enough, Jones indulged his singers in their belted-out arias and flippant long-held high notes. It was a big day for adrenaline.

Julia Dawson, who portrayed an airhead Rosina, is a soprano who can release roulades of coloratura with a torrent of shimmering sound. José Rubio was a hammy Figaro with an impressively booming baritone. After warming up, tenor Marco Stefani proved a warmly amiable Count Almaviva.

But all acted like such annoying brats on stage that that one’s sympathy naturally went to the ludicrous Dr. Bartolo, Rosina’s lecherous guardian, who schemes to marry her. DeAndre Simmons, a baritone who is an alumnus of the academy voice program (and was left out of the program book), played the part; he became the afternoon’s class act. Julienne Walker could have been a knockout Berta, the maid, had she not tried so hard to be a knockout Berta nor overplayed the sneezing. Brandon Cedel was the bumptious music master Don Basilio.

I would be happy to hear any of this young crew again. But this is the time in their development for them to be pushed, stretched, made musically and theatrically sophisticated, exposed to their art form’s depths. Instead, they have here been instructed in the art of mindless frivolity and musical mediocrity.

Such a conventionally sophomoric “Barber” prepares these singers for nothing outside the most provincial North American opera houses. If they have big-time real-world Rossini ambitions, they may be in for a shock, and the sooner it comes the better.


Critic's Notebook: California music festivals slight region's composers

Opera review: 'Don Giovanni' among the revelers in Santa Barbara

Opera review: 'Wedding's' Banquet

-- Mark Swed, from Santa Barbara

Photo: from left to right, DeAndre Simmons (Bartolo), Brandon Cedel (Basilio), Julienne Walker (Berta), Julia Dawson (Rosina), José Rubio (Figaro and Marco Stefani (Almaviva). Credit: David Bazemore/Music Academy of the West.