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The Barber of Seville: A Comic Romp

Opera can be comic. On May 8, the Washington National Opera clowned its way expertly through Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.” From the opening notes of the production’s iconic overture to those of its ensemble finale, the whimsical production held the audience’s attention, sparking laughter that shaded into guffaws.

The plot is simple. We find Count Almaviva, an earnest but slightly incompetent suitor, played by tenor Taylor Stayton, disguised as the poor student “Lindoro,” late in the evening under the window of the home of Dr. Bartolo. Surrounded by a small orchestra, the count has come to serenade Bartolo’s ward, the lovely Rosina. Unfortunately, the noise of unruly players threatens to wake Bartolo and ruin the entire enterprise. Comedy ensues as the count frantically tries to hush his co-conspirators.

Finally, the count manages a brilliant, but awkward, serenade. Unfortunately, his song fails to engage Rosina’s attention and the balcony doors stay stubbornly closed.

Enter Figaro. This suave jack-of-all-trades strides through the audience from the back of the theater singing the composition’s most famous aria, “Largo al factotum.” In this song, Figaro describes his role in Italian society. More than a simple barber, his clients clamor for his attention requiring many different tasks.

Figaro sonants:

Oh, what a crowding! Oh, what a fury!
One at a time, please, for charity’s sake!
“Hey, Figaro!” – I’m here.
Figaro here, Figaro there,
Figaro up, Figaro down.

Requiring the constant signing of triplets in 6/8 meter at allegro vivace tempo, it is one of the most difficult of all operatic ballads. Combing sass with deft vocal surety, baritone Andrey Zhilikhovsky carried the piece off brilliantly.

Not one for self-abasement, Figaro touts his matchmaking abilities to the count, who hires him on the spot. On the barber’s advice, the count gains access to Bartolo’s home twice. Firstly, he assumes the guise of a soldier billed upon the establishment.

Aping a drunkard, the count alternately flirts with Rosina and insults Bartolo. His antics throw the entire household into chaos, which results in the police being called. With arrest in view, a few choice words from the count, who reveals his identity to the police officer, results in his escape, much to Bartolo’s astonishment.

Not to be deterred, the count returns in the guise of a substitute music teacher telling Bartolo that the usual instructor, Don Basilio played by bass Wei Wu, is sick in bed. To allay Bartolo’s fears, he produces a love letter from Rosina to Lindoro, explaining how it might be used to poison Rosina’s affections.

Bartolo allows the count to give Rosina a music lesson. The count and she successfully flirt while making fun of the doctor. However, the sudden arrival of the real music teacher throws the entire enterprise into confusion until Basilio departs. Figaro arrives to shave Bartolo. The loves conspire to elope later that evening over the balcony as he takes care of his client.

Rosina, played by Grammy-award winning, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, is no wilting daisy. Throwing objects scornfully at Bartolo, while wooing her heartthrob Lindoro, she is sassy and comic in turn. In the aria “Una voce poco fa,” she sings:

Yes, Lindoro shall be mine,
I’ve sworn it, I’ll succeed.
My guardian won’t consent,
but I will sharpen my wits,
and at last, he will relent,
and I shall be content.

In the next verse, she threatens:

But if crossed in love,
I can be a viper,
and a hundred tricks
I shall play
before they have their way.

If Rosina is all vim and vinegar, Bartolo, well played by Paolo Bordogna, is a clueless clown hoodwinked by the lovers at every turn.

Once Figaro and the count depart, Bartolo uses the letter to convince Rosina of Lindoro’s perfidy, claiming the poor student is planning to sell her to Count Almaviva. Rosina confesses about the planned elopement and promises to marry Bartolo out of anger.

When Figaro and the count arrive later that evening, Rosina confronts them only to learn that Lindoro is actually Almaviva. Their escape is foiled by the removal of the ladder to the balcony. Basilio arrives with a notary in tow prepared for Bartolo’s impending marriage to his ward. With the aid of Figaro, he is bribed to allow the count and Rosina to wed. Bartolo returns, surveys the situation and gives up his troth.

The Washington Opera’s production is a complete comic romp. Paying close attention to the details of physical comedy, gestures and facial expressions, the show had the audience roaring with laughter. Unusually for opera, the major characters repeatedly broke through the “fourth wall,” directly conspiring with the audience in lampooning other players. Yet for all this, it was the combination of the count’s earnestness, Rosina’s spunk, Bartolo’s incompetence and Figaro’s impudence that meshing perfectly made for a memorable performance.

The Washington National Opera’s Barber of Seville truly put the comedy back in comic opera.

The Barber of Seville is on at the Kennedy Center until May 19.

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