Picture a celebrated nineteenth century composer’s house in Paris: in one corner, Camille Saint-Saëns waiting for his turn at the piano; in another, a famous singer, preparing to entertain wealthy glitterati; and holding court over all, Gioachino Rossini, with his latest mistress on his arm.
Music publisher Ricordi, who counted Verdi, Bellini and Donizetti among his stable of composers, proclaimed Rossini Imperator musicae, musical emperor of Europe: a rich, famous, nineteenth century “prince” of considerable girth, and a gourmand of food, wine, and beautiful women. Many of Rossini’s contemporaries considered him the premiere composer of all music, not only of opera. Prolific? According to legend he once said, “Give me a laundry list and I’ll set it to music.”
In no other oeuvre does Rossini prove his “royalty” more than Il Barbiere di Siviglia, an opera that appears on almost everyone’s “favorite and most popular” lists. “I was born for the opera buffa,” Rossini once declared. The indomitable G.B. Shaw called Rossini an “evil genius” and deemed The Barber “fresh… imposing… clever.” Musicologist Alfred Einstein, who called Rossini’s melodies superficial but also sensuous and magical, proclaimed Barber an “opera buffa masterpiece.”
At its Rome premiere in 1816, however, Il Barbiere, AKA The Useless Precaution and Almaviva, o L’Inutile Precauzione, was not described in such glowing terms. In fact, it was an unmitigated disaster. The orchestra was too small, the players were terrible, and the little slapdash theater was horribly cramped. Rossini had accommodated lead tenor and Seville native Manuel Garcia’s request for authentic Spanish songs for Act One, but unfortunately Garcia started off by tuning his guitar onstage. The audience erupted into laughter, which upset the tenor, causing him to sing badly. It all went downhill from there. Spectators catcalled the soprano for starting with a few sung lines instead of an aria, and consequently didn’t bother to listen to most of the superb ones that followed. The next day, an offended Rossini feigned illness and refused to attend the performance. The audience felt so badly that by the third performance they behaved appropriately, applauding and laughing in the right places, paving the way for the opera’s immortality: a musical masterpiece that does not age.
Like so many opera composers of his time, Rossini was fascinated with the colorful atmosphere of Spain and its lively, flamboyant characters. In Barbiere, which he wrote as a youth of twenty-four in about three weeks, he skillfully demonstrates both his ability to paint these qualities in music and his aptitude for writing the patter singing that was a trademark in his early works. Just as impressive is his knack for depicting the mobility of a society where an enterprising tradesman can rub shoulders with a nobleman, gain access to the house of a rich bourgeois and win the confidence of a feisty heroine who is ready for anything. The stuff of contemporary sitcoms, showing common folk in comic situations, was one of Rossini’s strong suits. Thus, even with a mediocre orchestra and a cramped theater, Rossini could make an audience laugh, and still does.
Rossini’s music demands exceptional singers with agile voices, and in this opera it’s almost a requirement that the lead singers enjoy themselves. Saturday night’s rollicking Barbiere, the final production of SDO’s forty-seventh season, fulfilled both musical and comic elements, and gave the performers ample opportunity to have fun.
Making his debut as the enterprising businessman who could be employee-of-the-month on Match.com, American baritone Lucas Meachem displayed a comic flair and unique personality that proved he could tackle roles aside from the dramatic ones he has performed at the Met, San Francisco, Covent Garden and others. A natural performer, this rock star of opera held the audience in thrall from the first raised eyebrow, dazzling everyone with the power and beauty of his voice.
In yet another debut, Spanish soprano Silvia Tro Santafé provided a charming, feisty foil to Meachem’s Figaro. Since her debut at the Opera Festival in Rossini’s native Pesaro, she has been recognized for her interpretations of Baroque, Classical and Bel Canto repertoire in the US and Europe. Last night she plumbed the depths and range of her lush voice, with its unencumbered top, and skillfully played up Rosina’s determination to divest herself of Bartolo at any cost.
Since his 1999 debut here in Cosi Fan Tutte, American tenor John Osborn has become a SDO favorite. Known for performing operas by Mozart and Johann Strauss in recent years, his international experience also includes Bel Canto and Grand Opera. He deftly adapted the romantic brightness of his lithe voice to his dashing characterization of the love-driven Almaviva: a perfect pairing with Meacham’s money-hungry Figaro. His technical proficiency in the rarely performed second act aria Ah, il più lieto was impressive, but I thought the piece disrupted the dramatic momentum from the brilliant Figaro/Rosina/Almaviva trio into the finale.
As the comically commanding Bartolo Carlos Chausson, whose rich bass-baritone has been heard all over Europe as well as at the Met, has been a longtime favorite at SDO in over twenty roles, including his debut as Masetto. His expertise from two hundred-plus renderings of the role showed, both in his vocal agility and his deepening of the character: rather than a doddering old man, a wily fox, defeated in a moment of weakness.
Alexander Vinogradov made his SDO debut as an appealing Don Basilio. Already the young Russian basso has performed at La Scala, Covent Garden and numerous other prominent European houses, and is beginning to earn a fine reputation in the US. A gifted comic, he also displayed his opulent voice to advantage.
A veteran of European opera houses and concert halls and at the Met, Italian conductor Antonello Allemandi ably demonstrated his knowledge of the Italian opera repertoire in his SDO debut. Maestro Antonello set the tone with his lively tempi in the overture and continued energetically throughout the evening to exhibit a keen stylistic sense of the opera’s comic elements.
Herbert Kellner, who debuted at SDO directing the premiere of Tobias Picker’s Thérèse Raquin, includes such companies as Chicago Lyric, Los Angeles and Seattle in his wide range of experience. Mr. Kellner has faithfully recreated John Copley’s uniquely imaginative original production to reflect Mr. Copley’s artistic sensibilities, playing up the comedy’s physicality and lighthearted-exaggeration while preserving the production’s original verve and quirkiness.
The engaging sets by Designer John Conklin were inspired by surrealist René Magritte’s pulsating colors, stylized angles and flamboyant images. Mr. Conklin has designed for some of the leading opera houses of the US and Europe, among them the Met, San Francisco, English National and Munich. As a violinist at the Met, I vividly recall his striking production of the rarely performed I Lombardi. SDO audiences will no doubt remember his fantastical designs for the 1994 US premiere of Rappaccini’s Daughter, by Il Postino composer Daniel Catán. With flying chairs and huge splashes of bright red, his Barbiere was always active and attention grabbing, and provided a lively setting for Michael Stennett’s vibrant costumes, some of which were so clever as to elicit delighted applause from the audience.
Among the operas Rossini felt would survive him, Il Barbiere was, “from one end to the other,” at the top of his list. SDO’s spirited production would make him confirm that with a smile. I could almost hear him saying, “Da Bravo.”
Il Barbiere di Siviglia continues at San Diego Opera this week with performances on April 24, 27, and 29. For more information: www.sdopera.com
Photos by Ken Howard