By Gioachino Rossini
Conductor: Michele Mariotti
Director: David Gately
Figaro: Simone Alberghini
Count Almaviva: Lawrence Brownlee
Rosina: Silvia Tro Santafé
What better way to start my Washington National Opera season than with Rossini's most popular opera buffa, Il Barbiere di Siviglia? The first time I heard the world-famous call of "Figaro, Figaro, Fi-ga-ro" live I was sitting in La Scala Theater in Milan, and just the fact of being in this legendary venue was so overwhelming that it did not allow me to fully indulge in the delightful silliness of the plot or the enchanting melodies of the score. But last night, in the familiar surroundings of the Kennedy Center's opera house and the even more familiar presence of Jennifer, my opera buddy, I was determined to concentrate on what was happening on the stage. Frequently hinted at in pop culture, The Barber of Seville is the kind of opera that even the unwashed have been exposed to, in some cases probably unknowingly, through a wide range of beloved American icons such as Bugs Bunny and Seinfeld. Accordingly, the crowd did look more eclectic than usual, and everybody seemed ready to enjoy some high-flying fun on that beautiful fall evening.
And it turned out to be... OK, although I want to quickly add that the reasons it turned out to be just OK are not all related to the performances (More on that later). The story is inspired by Beaumarchais's first part of his Figaro trilogy, Le barbier de Séville, and is easy on the heart and mind with its simple narrative and colorful characters. The sets and costumes were fairly traditional and efficiently reinforced the place and time, and the overture was as engaging as ever. At that point though, it was basically all up to the singers to make the production take off or barely sail through, and they effortlessly raised up to the occasion by providing the more uplifting moments of the evening.
As opera's favorite "Jack-of-all-trades", baritone Simone Alberghini started things off with spot-on assurance and infectious cheerfulness. His singing was not particularly "bubbly" but right on target, and his stage presence hard to miss. During the whole performance, he would also serve as the unflappable master of ceremony, giving authoritative stage directions with a snap of the fingers. While not a ground-breaking idea, it certainly worked well in that case. In the role of the love-stricken Count Almaviva, Lawrence Brownlee effortlessly justified all the rave reviews he's been getting for a while now. His small stature hides an impeccably precise instrument which he uses to the fullest, mastering daunting technical intricacies and projecting relatable emotional power. The object of his relentless ardor, the feisty Rosina, was wonderfully impersonated by Spanish mezzo-soprano Silvia Tro Santafé, who let it all gorgeously soar with unwavering timing. The rest of the cast went way beyond the call of duty to make this production as enjoyable as possible, and they brilliantly succeeded.
The director had made some downright comical choices that worked pretty much as intended, from turning Don Basilio into a shameless kleptoman and Rosina into a hard-headed young woman seen mischievously playing tricks on her despicable guardian. The Act I finale was a grand old mess in slow motion, the physical uncontrolled chaos in the room perfectly expressing the utterly confused state of mind all the main characters were in by then. However, despite first-rate singers, catchy arias and cutely funny moments, the almost three-hour performance did drag on now and then, which can mostly be blamed to the obligatory singing of the same line over and over again. While it allows for impressive vocal acrobatics, it also mercilessly slows down the action and unduly extends the running time.
To make things worse, a couple of external annoyances kept on making the whole evening increasingly frustrating. It started with the couple next to me reeking of a garlic-centric dinner (This type of Italian touch was quite unnecessary, thank you very much), continued with the woman behind us sporadically fidgeting with her purse, and ended with a young couple a few seats down from her steadily eating peanuts from one of those incredibly noisy little plastic bags (Yes, we got smell AND sound for that one), obviously uninterested by what they had come to see and apparently shocked by my audacity of asking them to, well, you know, stop. I'm not sure if Murphy's law was already a known concept in 19th century Italy, but it was decidedly unwelcome last night.
So this first opera outing of the season was not all it could have been, but looking at it from the cup-half-full perspective, it only means it whetted my appetite for more, even if the flawless singing will definitely be hard to top. Onward and forward!