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Production Dominates Performance of Barber

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
10/07/2003 -  7, 10, 12, 14, 16, 19, and 25, October
Gioacchino Rossini: Il Barbiere di Siviglia
Nathan Gunn (Figaro), Helene Schneiderman (Rosina), Yann Beuron (Count Almaviva), Paul Plishka (Doctor Bartolo), Philip Ens (Don Basilio), Hugh Russell (Fiorello), Catherine Cook (Berta), Robert Dickinson (Notary), Brad Alexander (Magistrate), Ricardo Herrera (Ambrogio)
Stefan Soltesz (Conductor)
Johannes Schaaf (Stage Director)

Rossini’s popular Il Barbiere di Siviglia received a new production this season at the San Francisco Opera, one that dominates, even overpowers the performance and singers. Stage Director Johannes Schaaf and his design team (Hans Dieter Schaal, set designer, Tan Tax, costume designer and Paul Pyant, lighting designer), has given the evergreen comedy a major makeover. The set this time around is an enormous two-level house that rotates to reveal the several rooms, exteriors, balconies and entryways. With its stark, unvaried off-white color and strong vertical lines throughout, the eye is constantly drawn upward, away from the singers. Not that there is anything above the house to see, but the effect is one of upward movement that easily distracts from the performance.
As if in compensation, Schaaf has devised a frantically busy staging, sometimes witty and clever, sometimes brilliantly apt but equally often a distraction from the performance. For example, Figaro’s entrance on a bright red Vespa is expertly timed and has the right kind of theatrical flair that suits the character. On the other hand, the finale of act one staging left the principals all standing around singing, but very little attention was paid to them. Instead, most of the audience was captivated in watching the men’s chorus dismantle and strip the Vespa down to its bare chassis. The enabled the singers to stand and focus on some of the difficult ensemble singing Rossini demands, but all to no avail since it seemed secondary to the goings-on on the other side of the stage.
Of the several soloists making their debuts in this production, Nathan Gunn’s Figaro was the most consistently satisfying and entertaining. His is not a large baritone and at times it was easily covered by the orchestra and other soloists (at least from the location of this review’s seat). But it is a beautiful voice, expertly used and securely produced. Furthermore, his singing was never less than gracious no matter what stage-business involved him. His highly energetic performance, nimble-footed capers, and handsome, dashing presence made for a convincing factotum.
In another debut, tenor Yann Beuron, displayed a light, pleasant tenor. Not always capable of the role’s demanding coloratura or projecting his voice sufficiently into the large auditorium, he still provided a charming, classy presence. Beuron was both aristocratic and youthful as befits the role.
Likewise, Helene Schneiderman’s Rosina had ample charm and energy, but her singing was adequate rather than accomplished. The cadenzas and embellishments in her arias, both “Una voce poco fa” and “Contro un cor” were cleanly, accurately sung, but lacking in the kind of vocal command and assurance that allows for truly exciting singing.
Veteran bass Paul Plishka returned to the company in the role of Doctor Bartolo. At this stage of his career, Plishka’s vocal resources are stretched to the limit in order to sing the role, but his keen awareness of Rossini’s musical gestures and his ability with the recitative made for some distinguished singing all the same. Plishka too was the victim of Schaaf’s miscalculated direction and deserves the Good Sport Award for putting up with it. Throughout “A un dottor della mia sorte”, while Plishka gamely, if somewhat cautiously essay’s the aria’s alternation between booming declarations and rapid patter, his servant Ambrogio, played by Ricardo Herrara, executes a routine involving dusting and polishing a medical model of the human body. In it’s own right, Ricardo Herrara’s Ambrogio is brilliantly funny. But it has no business competing with Bartolo’s aria and the director has left the soloist standing there up to his own devices trying to compete.
In yet a third company debut, bass Philip Ens displayed a striking, if somewhat inconsistent bass. While his “La Calumnia” failed to find the wicked pleasure it suggests, elsewhere Ens sang with presence and distinction. Furthermore, he created a unique, fascinating character as Don Basilio, all uptight in his stiff-collared suit.
Both Hugh Russell’s Fiorello and Catherine Cook’s Berta emerged as distinct personalities in this production and Schaaf’s busy staging required a good deal from both of them.
The conductor for the production, Stefan Soltesz, was also making his company debut. And it was a distinguished one at that. Musical matters were kept firmly in hand, the ensembles tight and the orchestra playing with sparkling buoyancy. The notes provided by the press office indicated that there were cuts, but coyly declined to specify the cuts made, stating simply that they were “standard, mostly in the recitatives”. And while there were, as they also stated, few cuts in the recitatives than usual, the cuts elsewhere were more extensive than such a statement would suggestion. Most notable from the missing music was the Count’s “Cessa di piu resistere”, but other numbers were also pruned.
The overall impression left from the performance attended was one of disappointment in the overall level of singing, with none of it standing out as exciting or exemplary. And while the production is impressive, when the set is the most memorable part of a performance, things are out of balance. The production returns for a couple of performances in November and several more in January. The January run will feature a largely different cast, which includes Joyce di Donato, Thomas Hampson and Matthew Polenzani. If the level of singing can be raised to the match the flair and energy of the staging, this Il Barbiere di Siviglia may yet succeed in what it attempts.

Kelly Snyder



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