Here are some comments on the Austin Lyric Opera's Barber of Seville last
weekend. I went Friday and Saturday and saw both casts.
Figaro: David Malis/David Small
Rosina: Deidra Palmour/Cheryl Parrish
Almaviva: Mark Thomsen/Raul Hernandez
Basilio: Edward Russell/Valentin Peytchinov
Bartolo: Steven Condy
Berta: Susan Nicely
Fiorello: Brett Barnes
This was the second production of Barber that I've seen; the first was at
the Met back in December. This one was a lot more slapstick, more
cartoonish, and more heavily choreographed. The sets didn't attempt to
evoke Seville; they consisted of brightly-colored furniture and painted
backdrops (not quite Day-Glo, but almost).
I will just mention a couple of the more unusual things about the
production. At the beginning, there was a big portrait of Rossini on the
stage (about 8 or 10 feet tall) and next to it, a smaller replica of a
stage with the curtain down and little footlights that lit up when the
overture started. In front of these were a couple of chandeliers and three
puppets, two men and one woman, dangling in the air. They looked to be
about 8 feet above the floor and about 1 1/2 feet tall, and they never did
anything but hang there. In front of all this was a sheer, dark curtain.
Halfway through the overture, the curtain went up and a door opened in the
portrait of Rossini, and Almaviva stepped out. For a minute or so he
wandered around the stage looking dazed and lovestruck (I guess). Then he
ran back to the portrait of Rossini and stood in front of it with his back
to us and his arms stretched out to the sides, then ran to a trunk nearby,
opened it, took off his fancy blue coat and put on a shabbier blue coat,
ran back to Rossini, stretched his arms out again, then ran to the front of
the stage as the overture ended. Then a painted curtain fell behind him
and he lay down on the stage. After a long pause the curtain went back up
and there was the outside of Bartolo's house, and things continued as usual
from there. Later, the same tableau with the portrait and puppets
reappeared during Una voce poco fa -- Rosina popped out of the portrait and
got her writing paper and pen out of the same trunk that had held
Almaviva's Lindoro clothes. I didn't like this business much, especially
the action during the overture. For me it didn't add anything to the
production except extra scene changes that were more distracting than
anything else. I did like the use of the portrait at the very end,
however. For the finale, the back wall of Rosina's room went up to reveal
the Rossini portrait against a blue backdrop. When everyone was done
singing they turned and raised their champagne glasses to the composer and
I thought the best staging was during La calunnia. In contrast to the busy
scenes preceding it, here Basilio and Bartolo simply sat having tea at a
bright green table. While Basilio explained his plan, Bartolo stared at
him, transfixed, slowly pouring spoonful after spoonful of sugar into his
cup. Basilio stood up and got a little carried away during the "colpo di
cannone" part. Then he sat back down, picked up his cup again, fished out
a bug and flicked it onto the floor, then thoroughly squished it with his
foot while singing "E il meschino calunniato . . ." The scene worked
better with Russell than with Peytchinov. For one thing, he is really tall
(6'5" or so) and long-legged, which just made for a funnier sight. Bartolo
was made up to look very rotund, and the sight of these two giant men
sitting at a little table with dainty little teacups was pretty amusing.
Also, Russell sang looking directly across the table at Bartolo, whereas
Peytchinov sat sideways, looking out at us.
The only other thing I'll mention is a dream sequence during the storm
music. While Rosina tosses and turns on her daybed, fog rolls in behind
her. Then Almaviva runs in with two whores; he embraces them and shows
them Rosina's letter, and they all double over laughing.
The whole production was pretty goofy, full of sight gags and little dance
steps (including what looked like the hokey-pokey at one point). But it
was very funny and very enjoyable thanks to an excellent cast, all of whom
seemed to be having a lot of fun.
The best singing was from Palmour and Parrish (the two Rosinas), Russell
(the first Basilio), and Hernandez (the second Almaviva). It was
especially interesting to compare the Rosinas, who were very different.
Palmour is a mezzo and was the more understated of the two, although she
certainly was funny and animated. Parrish is a soprano (she sang some
spectacular high notes, too) and really played the role for laughs, but I
never thought she overdid it. Both moved very gracefully and naturally,
sang expressively, and were just excellent.
Vocally, the weakest link was Mark Thomsen, the first Almaviva. He acted
well and sang accurately as far as I could tell, but I didn't like his
voice that much and I especially didn't like the fact that he never
modified the volume. His aria and serenade were too loud and just sounded
Saturday's Basilio, Peytchinov, was not as good as Russell was, although he
certainly wasn't bad. But Russell has a better voice and better stage
presence, plus a real knack for letting his physique and the music itself
do a lot of the work -- he was very funny without clowning around
excessively. But losing Russell the second night was more than balanced by
gaining Hernandez. His acting was fine but not great (he hammed it up a
little too much), but he sang beautifully, probably the best of all. He
was much better than Thomsen; I also thought he was much better than Bruce
Ford, whom I saw/heard at the Met and liked a lot less than I had expected
to (I was at the broadcast performance). His Ecco ridente in cielo was
quite ornamented (with a trill even) and was just fantastic.
Steven Condy was a wonderful Bartolo. He sang very well, but even more
importantly, he acted well. Like Russell, he took somewhat of a minimalist
(for a Bartolo, anyway) approach, letting the choreography and his
roly-poly costume do most of the talking. Needless to say, Bartolo was at
the receiving end of the silliest stage business, and it made a world of
difference to have someone with a light touch in the role.
The Berta and Fiorello were very good, and I thought the chorus did a
pretty nice job. The supertitles were absolutely horrible; they were often
translated awkwardly, omitted a ton of useful information, and when the
stage was brightly lit they couldn't be read at all. The orchestra was
just okay, but the harpsichordist was very good. All of the ensemble
numbers were well done.
I almost forgot the Figaros, David Malis and David Small. Unfortunately, I
wasn't crazy about either of them, although I liked Malis slightly better.
Neither sang the hell out of Largo al factotum the way I hoped he would,
and I sometimes had trouble hearing both of them all the way up in the
balcony, even when they were singing solo. (The Bass Concert Hall is
pretty big -- it seats 3,000 or so -- but all of the other cast members
sang plenty loud enough.) Still, they both gave energetic performances and
were pretty fun to watch.
The audience was very appreciative (sometimes too appreciative -- they gave
Cheryl Parrish a nice hand halfway through Una voce) and the performances
were not quite sold out but appeared to be nearly full. If anyone else on
the list attended, I'd be interested to hear what you thought.