In a word: Meh.
The Barber of Seville co-production (COC, Opera Australia, Bordeaux, Houston) that opened last night at the COC is safe, milquetoast and aims to crowd-please while removing any possible edges (political, sexual) off the work. It was also slow in pace, its musical zest diluted too.
The piece itself flatters the then still most powerful layer of the society—via its protagonist the Count—and left to its own devices it’s a fairly reactionary tale in which the young, vital Count breaks through the barriers that the puritan and calculating older bourgeois man The Doctor put in place to keep The Girl in his possession. Els Comediants actually emphasized the opera’s aristocracy-loving ways by playing the Count as a total charmer, next to whom Figaro is a serviceable wingman. Alek Shrader’s comedic talent and vocal prowess here are the show: singers don’t often dare be funny through their voice, but Shrader went there without fear and made fun of the coloraturas and trills in his arias on several occasions. It was great fun trying to figure out when the runs are done seriously and when they’re a parody—and with Rossini the two are dangerously close. Shrader with the conductor Rory Macdonald explored this thin (non-existent?) border in a very productive way.
The director Joan Font leveled the social differences among the characters by dressing them all in similar costumes, a mix of commedia dell’arte and Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. The sets are in bright colours, and there are the usual oversized objects that people will go “Oh, how cute” over. What is more surprising is the lack of physicality in the production—movement is minimal, except for the Count, and the characters’ restricted gestures bring to mind paper dolls. I found myself pining after a traditionalist production of Barber; those tend to have freer movement and don’t shun the physical comedy. If a production is making you think longingly of Ponnelle, that’s probably all you need to know about it.
As I mentioned, the tempi were on the ponderous side, so in this the staging and the music are a good match. There was the odd balance issue, too. In the Act One Finale for example, the musically most exciting moment of the opera, the protagonists were overpowered by the all-male chorus and the orchestra and might as well have not been singing—the only individual voice you could discern was Berta soaring (Aviva Fortunata) when the score called for it.
The singing actors who are not the Count (whose show this is) were all rather adequate. I’m sure a different production would make much more of each one of them, but this production was about the colours of the set, not about colourful personalities. Serena Malfi was a competent Rosina, Joshua Hopkins was an okay Figaro, Renato Girolami was an appropriately buffo Bartolo, Robert Gleadow was all right as Don Basilio.
A Teletubbies Rossini, alas.
A scene from Joan Font’s The Barber of Seville at the Canadian Opera Company: Renato Girolami, Clarence Frazer (the officer), the male chorus, Alek Shrader, Aviva Fortunata, Serena Malfi, Joshua Hopkins. Photo by Chris Hutcheson.