Last week the Academy of Vocal Arts gave us Le Nozze di Figaro, which chronicles (among other things) the eroding union of Count and Countess Almaviva. A few blocks down Spruce Street, you can now encounter the same couple in happier times. Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Rossini’s durable comic romp, opens the season at Curtis Opera Theatre.
It’s an odd choice for Curtis, which has gained a reputation as a reliable purveyor of offbeat repertory in recent years. And it receives an odd staging, one in which few elements completely cohere into fully realized ideas. Yet on opening night, a high musical standard went a long way in making up for dramaturgical cloudiness.
Something more serious
Six doors dot Jacob Climer’s sleek set, which is often lighted in blood red shades by Christopher Ostrom. But don’t expect much farce from director Chas Rader-Shieber. Even though the ingredients are there—including costumes (also by Climer) that seem to locate the staging in swinging-60s Britain, a boulevard-comedy breeding ground—Rader-Shieber tends to have something more serious in mind.
A little seriousness can go a long way in this particular opera, which I often find tiresome when it’s presented for maximum jocularity. It’s also a good way to address some of the darker aspects at the work’s edge. After all, the lovely Rosina is essentially held prisoner by the leering Dr. Bartolo, styled here as a sketchy psychiatrist who brandishes hypnosis as a weapon. Almaviva’s interception is both a marriage plot and a true tale of rescue—if things went in a darker direction, it could resemble Johanna and Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd.
Yet Rader-Shieber’s directorial vision unspools in fits and starts. Why does the all-male chorus appear dressed, alternately, as furniture movers and as a sort of Alpine police force in very short shorts? Why, in the lesson scene, does Count Almaviva (disguised as a music instructor) play a comically tiny piano? Why is a high-school aesthetic introduced in the first scene of the production, then never glimpsed again?
I admire the directors and designers for refusing to deliver an easily digestible version of this opera, and the overall feel of the staging is in line with the refreshingly daring style that Curtis has cultivated in recent years. But especially in light of the very high production values on display, a touch more follow-through would have been appreciated.
Musical matters were on much surer footing. Despite some coordination problems and questionable dynamics in the legendary overture, conductor Christian Capocaccia led a fleet, spirited reading of this familiar score. Capocaccia was supportive of the singers without being overindulgent. Miloš Repický accompanied the recitatives well on harpsichord, and Alan Liu aced the important guitar solos.
Vocal honors went to Merissa Beddows (Rosina), a soprano whose agile voice could plunge down to the contralto notes written in the score. Her coloratura and acute were not always flawless, but there is more to the role than vocal pyrotechnics, and she often proved a deft comic actor without overselling bawdiness or slapstick. She paired well with tenor Joseph Tancredi, a refreshingly sincere Count Almaviva.
When I heard baritone Ben Schaefer sing Figaro in John Corigliano’s pastiche opera The Ghosts of Versailles at the Glimmerglass Festival this past summer, I predicted he would soon graduate to the real thing. Well, here he was, singing Rossini’s Figaro as his first assignment with Curtis, flaunting a bright voice and comfortable stage presence. His artistic profile isn’t fully formed yet—sometimes he could use a dash of the restraint Beddows displayed—but he makes an excellent addition to the Curtis roster.
The smaller roles filled out nicely. Emily Damasco’s velvety mezzo-soprano made Berta’s second-act aria one of the evening’s highlights, and bass-baritone Andrew Moore boasted a firm, individuated tone as Fiorello. Bass Thomas Petrushka (Don Basilio) will go far in character parts. Adam Kiss was suitably imposing as Dr. Bartolo, more of a legitimate villain than a buffo stereotype, but his bass sounded worn and woolly.
What, When, Where
Il Barbiere di Siviglia. By Gioachino Rossini and Cesare Sterbini. Directed by Chas Rader-Shieber. Curtis Opera Theatre. Through November 24, 2019, at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater, 300 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-5252 or curtis.edu.
The Kimmel Center is an ADA-compliant venue. Wheelchair seating locations and loose, upholstered seats are available in the Perelman Theater, and can be purchased online.