Rossini's The Barber of Seville is one of those comic operas that's seen every sort of interpretation under the sun—straight, wild, period, updated, cut, restored, and even mildly philosophical. We can now add to that list "vaudeville-esque with a touch of slapstick." That was the stylistic direction that Knoxville Opera took with its production last weekend, part of the ninth annual Rossini Festival. But was that the right direction to take? How far is too far when it comes to popularizing an opera, or any work of art for that matter, to appeal to new audiences?
Stage director James Marvel and Knoxville Opera Music Director Brian Salesky took the production into tricky territory, where Rossini's own devices—comic confusion and intrigue, plot twists, and musical humor—were ignored or forced to take a back seat to vaudevillian sight gags and contemporary references. This approach, when executed as well as this production was, can ease some new audiences into the opera experience by bridging the gap between opera and more familiar musical comedy. Inevitably, however, compromising a work's complexity and subtlety with simplistic alterations can be a slippery slope fraught with all sorts of unfortunate implications for the future.
Perhaps we should blame all this on poor Rossini. Some might maintain that the story, based on Beaumarchais' play Le Barbier de Séville, is practically an open invitation to modern revision. Count Almaviva, a nobleman, is smitten by the lovely and clever Rosina, the ward of one Dr. Bartolo. To avoid Bartolo's own designs on her, Rosina schemes with Figaro, the local barber and jack-of-all-trades, so that she may marry Almaviva, who she initially believes is the poor but handsome Lindoro.
Whatever one may have thought of the stylistic approach, a more suitable cast would have been difficult to find, both vocally and in the innate theatrical ability needed to master energetic physical comedy. Andrew Garland, as the barber, was a commanding and lovable Figaro, with engaging vocal strength, agility, and confidence. His swagger made the brief allusion to Happy Days' Fonzie appropriate. And he certainly didn't disappoint with his Act I entrance aria "Largo al factotum."
Although productions often transpose the role of Rosina up for coloratura sopranos, the lovely mezzo-soprano Leah Wool proved this totally unnecessary. While her voice was perfect for the role, Wool is also an actress of substantial comedic ability, selling the role beautifully with both a calculating smirk and an open-mouthed ingenuousness. Tenor Javier Abreu, who stepped into the role of Almaviva late in production, had a sensational top range and an enticing lyrical quality.
If there is such a thing as comedic gravity, bass Kevin Burdette has it. His Dr. Bartolo was not the fat, pompous snob and buffoon that one often sees in the role. Instead, he was a rail-thin, loose-jointed fop with almost cartoon-like villainy and wildly animated comedic gestures. Frankly, Burdette possesses a theatrical ability rarely found on the opera stage. When coupled with his incredibly solid, rich bass, it sets him apart as a performer with an exciting future.
Also appearing was a marvelous Dixie Roberts in the trimmed role of Berta, Bartolo's maid. Craig Irvin was wonderful as the scheming music teacher, Basilio; Ryland Pope sang the role of Fiorello.
If it were not for the excellent performances—and if one didn't know better—one might assume that Marvel's clever staging was being carried over into the physical production. Badly wrinkled rented backdrops combined with inappropriately artless, bland, and unattractive lighting gave one the feeling of watching a cheap vaudeville show. Rossini's plot points—comedic intrigue, disguise, darkened locales, and the Act II storm—were rendered ineffective, and even nonexistent, by unfortunate staging decisions and sadly amateurish stagecraft.
Thankfully, the solid Knoxville Symphony Orchestra was in the pit once again under the baton of Maestro Salesky, who also played the harpsichord recitatives. Ben Bolt was the onstage guitarist.
During the Rossini Festival, KOC announced its schedule for next season—three wonderful masterpieces, Madama Butterfly, Manon, and I Puritani. Perhaps its good we've now got all that bawdy laughter out of our systems.