April 25, 2019

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Seville silliness

Colourful characters, slapstick moments make Manitoba Opera's Barber a cut above the rest

There’s a time-honoured tenet that “opera” must be a darkly serious affair, lurking in the shadows of heartbreak and despair with tragedy only a few notes away.

Cue silliness, in the case of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, with its two fulsome acts rocket-fuelled by madcap buffoonery, disguises, slapstick and pratfalls with plenty of sight gags along the way. And not to forget nearly three hours of effervescent music, with several of its iconic arias considered cornerstones of the vocal repertoire that have even inspired a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with the 203-year old opera buffa directed by Montreal’s Alain Gauthier. Saturday night’s opener showcased a strong cast of five principals with Tyrone Paterson leading the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra with customary finesse.

The 185-minute production (including intermission) based on Cesare Sterbini’s Italian libretto tells the tale of Figaro, a jack-of-all-trades who schemes to bring together the feisty Rosina, held captive by her lecherous guardian Dr. Bartolo and his love-smitten friend, Count Almaviva, who wishes to wed his ward for her dowry. Admittedly, the opera is more than a little plot-shy, relying rather on its stable of colourful characters painted with broad brushstrokes to bring its narrative to life.

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There’s a time-honoured tenet that "opera" must be a darkly serious affair, lurking in the shadows of heartbreak and despair with tragedy only a few notes away.

Cue silliness, in the case of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, with its two fulsome acts rocket-fuelled by madcap buffoonery, disguises, slapstick and pratfalls with plenty of sight gags along the way. And not to forget nearly three hours of effervescent music, with several of its iconic arias considered cornerstones of the vocal repertoire that have even inspired a certain "pesky wabbit," a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Opera Review

Click to Expand

 

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

● Saturday, April 6

● Centennial Concert Hall

● Next shows: Tuesday, 7 p.m. and Friday, 7:30 p.m.

● Tickets: $45.25-$164 at mbopera.ca and 204-944-8824. Senior, youth and student discounts available.

 

★★★★1/2 out of five

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with the 203-year old opera buffa directed by Montreal’s Alain Gauthier. Saturday night’s opener showcased a strong cast of five principals with Tyrone Paterson leading the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra with customary finesse.

The 185-minute production (including intermission) based on Cesare Sterbini’s Italian libretto tells the tale of Figaro, a jack-of-all-trades who schemes to bring together the feisty Rosina, held captive by her lecherous guardian Dr. Bartolo and his love-smitten friend, Count Almaviva, who wishes to wed his ward for her dowry. Admittedly, the opera is more than a little plot-shy, relying rather on its stable of colourful characters painted with broad brushstrokes to bring its narrative to life.

First up is Figaro, with internationally renowned Canadian baritone Elliot Madore’s dazzling Manitoba Opera debut as the tall, dark and strapping barber exuding conviction and swaggering ease every time he took the stage, his booming vocals filling the hall and matched only by his kilowatt smile.

Figaro, played by Elliot Madore (right), comes to the rescue of Rosina, played by Andrea Hill, and Count Almaviva, played by Andrew Owens. Rosina and the count were caught in their tryst by Dr. Bartolo, played by Steven Cody. (Robert Tinker photo)

Figaro, played by Elliot Madore (right), comes to the rescue of Rosina, played by Andrea Hill, and Count Almaviva, played by Andrew Owens. Rosina and the count were caught in their tryst by Dr. Bartolo, played by Steven Cody. (Robert Tinker photo)

He nearly stopped the show with his opening-act entrance aria, Largo al Factotum, receiving prolonged applause with cries of bravo for his performance delivered with the energy of a charging toro in a Spanish bull ring, which only gathered momentum until his final, enthralling burst of tongue-twisting patter spat out with razor-sharp precision. It is hoped this dynamo will return to the Centennial Concert Hall stage again — and soon.

Canadian mezzo-soprano Andrea Hill, also in her Manitoba Opera debut, reprises her role of Rosina from Calgary Opera’s November 2017 production, also directed by Gauthier. She instilled flesh-and-blood nuance into her all-too-human character, her growing exasperation at being locked away by Bartolo palpable.

Elliot Madore plays Figaro in The Barber of Seville, Rossini's delightfully silly opera. Madore's booming baritone voice is a show-stopper.  (Robert Tinker photo)

Elliot Madore plays Figaro in The Barber of Seville, Rossini's delightfully silly opera. Madore's booming baritone voice is a show-stopper. (Robert Tinker photo)

Her opening cavatina Una voce poca fa immediately displayed her full palette of tonal colours, including a shimmering upper register and warmly burnished tones in her lower range. It also provided the first taste of her sparkling coloratura, as she nimbly scaled vocal heights with quicksilver runs, later heard as well during the duet Dunque io son...tu non m’inganni?, sung with Figaro.

Like Madore, Hill is also a crackerjack actor, possessing a flawless comedic timing that includes furiously plucking flower petals in rhythm during her coloratura passages, and mugging and mocking Bartolo during the second-act "lesson scene" that elicited guffaws from the crowd.

American tenor Andrew Owens plays Count Almaviva — first appearing as poor student Lindoro — admittedly had a tough act to follow with his own opening cavatina, Ecco, ridente in cielo performed in the riptide of Winnipeg baritone David Watson’s servant Fiorello (also doubling as the Notary), with the latter’s earth-shaking vocals seemingly a force of nature.

Nevertheless, despite a few minor intonation issues and balance issues with the orchestra that quickly settled, Owen’s supple voice as a true Rossini leggero tenor proved its expressive best during Se il mio nome saper voi bramate, accompanied by Figaro’s mimed guitar accompaniment, and sung with elegant grace.

Giles Tomkins' performance of Act I’s "slander" aria, La calunnia with its famous long crescendo in which he advises Bartolo to smear Count Almaviva’s name, was an early highlight

American baritone Steven Condy created an imperious Dr. Bartolo, who bellows orders, and is also unafraid to let his own hair down when warbling during his own number in falsetto after taking over from Rosina’s The Useless Precaution during her singing lesson. His A un dottor della mia sorte that ends with his own crisply executed patter did not disappoint, straddling both worlds of hilarity and threatening power.

Canadian bass-baritone Giles Tomkins likewise brought dramatic intensity to his role as Don Basilio, Rosina’s vocal tutor and ostensibly Bartolo’s slimy sidekick. His performance of Act I’s "slander" aria, La calunnia with its famous long crescendo in which he advises Bartolo to smear Count Almaviva’s name, was an early highlight.

Special mention must be made of Winnipeg soprano Andrea Lett, who threw herself into her role as whiskey-swilling, cigarette-puffing maid Berta. Her heart-wrenching second-act aria Il vecchiotto cerca moglie in which she reveals her fear of growing old without love, became the opera’s poignant underbelly and sober second thought, and was sung with artful compassion.

Gauthier wisely allows his cast to venture off-leash as the show progresses with the well-staged production (albeit a trifle "park ‘n’ bark" at times) eliciting frequent hoots of laughter from the crowd.

Berta, played by Andrea Lett, jumps joyfully at the reaction she gets from grabbing the posterior of a drunken soldier, just one indication The Barber of Seville isn't intended as a dreary, serious opera. (Robert Tinker photo)

Berta, played by Andrea Lett, jumps joyfully at the reaction she gets from grabbing the posterior of a drunken soldier, just one indication The Barber of Seville isn't intended as a dreary, serious opera. (Robert Tinker photo)

One of the overall highlights (naturally) included the lesson scene, with Almaviva, now disguised as mop-topped singing teacher Don Alonso, appearing to channel the wacky spirit of Victor Borge complete with "air harpsichord" effects.

The highly stylized Art Deco flavoured set originally designed by Ken MacDonald for Pacific Opera Victoria, evokes the swoops and angles of Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, instilling a dreamlike atmosphere further heightened by Winnipeg lighting designer Bill Williams’ shifting rainbow of pastel hues, with all costumes designed by Dana Osborne.

A recurring visual leitmotif of umbrellas, held aloft and twirled at strategic points (mostly) by an all-male Manitoba Opera Chorus (prepared by Tadeusz Biernacki) creates a fascinating counterpoint to the voices, as well as fetching eye-candy, especially during the opening tableau. Pure magic is also created (warning: spoiler alert) during Act I’s final chorus Mi par d’esser con la testa when the policemen’s "bayonets" morph into brollies. However, despite the tightly synchronized choreography, this clever idea became too much of a good thing as overly fussy stage business, pulling focus from the leads also gamely navigating their own props.

Figaro! Fans of Bugs Bunny won't have to watch too hard to see why this opera spawned a cartoon parody. (Colin Corneau photo)</p>

Figaro! Fans of Bugs Bunny won't have to watch too hard to see why this opera spawned a cartoon parody. (Colin Corneau photo)

The first act alone clocks in at 105 minutes, with several scenes, including extended recitatives between characters needing to be tightened further. Still, the production’s palpable joy delivered with gusto by a well-balanced cast makes one long for their own well-coiffed Figaro, able to fix all of life’s woes with a swish of his wrist and devil-may-care glint in his eye.

holly.harris@shaw.ca

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