LOS ANGELES — Daily existence is full of a cornucopia of soul-sapping vexations marring our felicity. They run the gamut, dammit – from eternal, infernal traffic jams to pesky bill collectors to life-threatening plagues to wars to global warming, ad nauseam. But LA Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville is one of those things that can make you feel glad to be alive, rendering those ceaseless slings and arrows of our outrageous misfortunes bearable and even making living a worthwhile undertaking.
Debuting in Rome in 1816, Barber has become one of the most performed, best loved operas ever. There are several reasons why, but Rossini’s music certainly has pride of place. The score is bubbly, buoyant, vibrant, frothy. I’ve never seen James Conlon so animated, as from the get-go, with the Overture, he vividly conducted the orchestra with verve and flair, almost illustrating the music while moving as one with the dazzling score. Conlon’s baton seemed like more of a magic wand, conjuring Rossini’s intoxicating, enchanting score out of the strings, woodwinds, fortepiano, brass and percussion instruments, et al, like a symphonic sorcerer. This lucky critic had a perfect view of Conlon as the conductor held forth. I enjoyed moving my opera glasses back and forth between the action onstage and in the orchestra pit, with Conlon parrying and thrusting like a musical Errol Flynn. Call it: “Zen and the art of conducting.” Bravo to our swashbuckling maestro!
Another reason for Barber‘s perennial popularity is its plot – this comedy is, after all, an ebullient romance. As the maid Berta (mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer) sings: “What on earth is all this love which makes everyone go mad?” (Or, as Freddie Mercury put it 163 years later: that “Crazy little thing called love.”) Of course, there is Count Almaviva’s (tenor René Barbera) light-hearted, lusty pursuit of Rosina (mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong), which provides the comical backbone for this opera that adapts the first of the trilogy of 18th century plays by French playwright Pierre Augustin Beaumarchais about the title character.
However, in this libretto by Cesare Sterbini, there is no greater love than the one the eponymous haircutter, Figaro (Moscow-born baritone Rodion Pogossov), has for himself. This supremely self-confident beautician apparently has a higher quotient of self-esteem than The Donald does. In his rapidly sung “Largo al factotum” aria, basking in the beauty of (who else?) himself, the highly self-regarding, self-ballyhooing barber sings the name of his true love – “Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!” – dontchaknow? Pogossov is a hoot (and a holler) in the title role: Not even Kryptonite could stop this Muscovite.
Another outstanding thing about this LA Opera and Emilio Sagi production is that it slyly uses a cinematic technique rarely seen onscreen in movies such as 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. Spanish scenic designer Llorenc Corbella, Argentine costume designer Renata Schussheim, Spanish lighting designer Eduardo Bravo and American director Trevore Ross have quite cleverly collaborated to visualize the emergence of love onstage.
There are other shrewd stage effects – there is a likewise sharp-witted visualization of the “slander” concocted by Rosina’s thwarted would-be lover Doctor Bartolo (Italian baritone Alessandro Corbelli, who alternates in the role on March 22 with bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos), and Don Basilio, portrayed with great comic panache by the crowd-pleasing Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson. His hulking presence and humorous depiction added to the show’s general merriment, even as Basilio and his partner in crime, Bartolo, conspired to make Almaviva sing à la Simon and Garfunkel: “I get slandered, libeled, I hear words I never heard in the bible,” as he tries to keep Rosina satisfied.
Kudos to the entire cast and crew, including chorus director Grant Gershon and Spanish choreographer Nuria Castejón. And I’d be remiss if I did not also single out Tamara Sanikidze’s angelic tickling of the pianoforte’s ivories, which had a harpsichord-like vibe that enhanced the 18th-century ambiance.
LA Opera is presenting Rossini’s The Barber of Seville as part of this season’s “Figaro Unbound: Culture, Power and Revolution at Play” series, which included The Ghosts of Versailles and the upcoming The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, opening March 21 (can’t wait!). A Noise Within’s play Figaro, which is also part of the “Figaro Unbound” programming, debuted March 7 and will be the subject of a forthcoming review.
The best reason to see this opera is because, like our man Figaro, you love yourself and want to give yourself a well-deserved treat!
The Barber of Seville is being performed on March 11, 14 and 19 at 7:30 pm and March 22 at 2:00 pm at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. For more info: (213) 972-8001; www.laopera.com.