Cher Public

Barber on the verge of a nervous breakdown

It’s a romance but it’s not all about love. It’s a comedy but not everyone’s laughing. It’s a place where the one thing you can expect is the unexpected. The place is… Philadelphia?  

Opera Philadelphia’s new production of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (a co-production with Opera St Louis) is an hommage to the great Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar. And it works. Director Michael Shell‘s interweaving of Rossini and Almodóvar is truly inspired. All the hallmarks of Almodóvar are visible in Shell’s production—bright. almost garish colors, pop art galore, the melee of urban living, a cast filled with off-the-wall characters.

In Shell’s conception, Basilio becomes an oily lounge singer. Berta becomes a bombshell maid of the Rossy de Palma type. Fiorillo, Almaviva’s boy Friday, looks as if he just stepped out of a youth hostel. Figaro is, yes, a barber, but Shell sees him as a Vidal Sassoon celebrity stylist to the stars, mobbed by fans wherever he goes.

Bartolo becomes a doctor of optometry. His aria “A un dottor dell mia sorte” is sung while giving an eye exam, and becomes a truly hilarious moment.  Rosina, Bartolo’s ward,  works as the receptionist in Bartolo’s office.  Her spunky aria “Una voce poco fa” thus becomes every secretary’s anthem: “I will be a viper and hundred traps I will set, before I surrender!”

Giving Rosina a job highlights the fact that her romance with Almaviva is a rather unconventional one. And we know that Almadovar is all about unconventional relationships. Director Shell reminds us that Rossini is too. A count and a middle class career girl? Shell shows us by implying the cauldron of sexual and gender powerplay underneath Rossini’s frothy farce. Where will it all lead? It will lead to the storm-tossed loveland of Barber 2: The Marriage of Figaro.

In Opera Philadelphia’s production, Almaviva is both Trump-esque publicity-hungry tycoon (he graces magazine covers that litter Seville) and ardent tween-idol “Lindoro.”  “Which Count am I singing to?” one might ask.  Rosina can’t tell, the audience can’t tell, and I doubt director Shell’s Almaviva can tell either. The situation is muddied further when Almaviva masquerades as substitute music teacher Don Alonso.

The most inspired moment of a most inspired production occurs when Almaviva/Don Alonso arrives for Rosina’s music lesson dressed as a colorful flower child, complete with sitar! “Pace e gioia… Gioia e pace”.  Get it? I did, and the entire audience did too. Brilliant!

Opera Philadelphia used its chorus and supers to populate Seville with zany folk, another Almodóvar mark: a duo of impious nuns, a vagrant in a Santa Claus cap, a bawdy crone, flamenco dancers, randy lieutenants, keystone cops, even a clown on stilts. All this local color mingled with the main characters to create a swirling screwball universe. Perhaps they mingled a bit too vigourously however—to the point of audience distraction.  Still, their fun onstage was infectious.

Also having fun were the principals, mostly a cast of young fresh voices: Jonathan Beyer‘s vigorous Figaro, Taylor Stayton‘s cuddly yet grasping Count, Jennifer Holloway’s willful but sympathetic Rosina.  Bass Kevin Burdette gave a bravura performance as Dr. Bartolo. Dare I say “Baccaloni-esque?”  He was always in a whirl, acting, re-acting, slapstick, slaphappy: a great comic performance. The audience adored him. Conductor Corrado Rovaris led with vim which kept the opera’s comic pace humming. Finally!

There’s a lot of cock in this production. It seems to be everywhere. On walls, on desktops. Rosina caresses it. Her closet is adorned with a giant one. Bartolo even dreams of them during a nightmarish Temporale thunderstorm. Roosters, that is. I was mystified. What was being referenced? “Cuckold” refers to cuckoo, not cock ( I looked it up ).  Are roosters totems in Almodóvar films? I couldn’t find one, but I did find Rachael Ray‘s recipe for “Chicken for Almodovar.”

Someone in the audience informed me at intermission that this production is set during a festival. The “Cock Festival??!!” Hmmmm. Finally I realized it doesn’t matter why there are roosters everywhere. It’s all part of director Shell’s madcap Almodóvarian/Rossinian world: “the one thing you can expect, is the unexpected”.  Roosters!? It’s unexpected—and it’s fun. And “fun” was the adjective most overheard when in comments on Opera Philadelphia’s Barber.

  • WindyCityOperaman

    I hate to admit it, but it looks like a lot of fun. I guess all we have now is revisionist/updating et al of the traditional rep, but somehow it’s less irritating in the comic operas -- case in point Met’s Nozze and LOC’s Giovanni that opened Saturday.

  • Harold

    Baccaloni-esque? Is our dear correspondent really that old? Is what sense? Stature? (I think Burdette is much taller.) Corpulence? (For photos I’ve seen, I think Burdette is much thinner.) Vocal quality? What does this mean? I would have preferred to have one paragraph talking about actual singing than 2 with corny jokes about cocks/roosters, especially when the joke seems to be only in the writer’s head.

    • phillyof

      Oh Harold, the jokes just aren’t in my head. You’re here after all. Baloney-esque. Hugs and kisses. Roy Wood

  • Ilka Saro

    Great to read that Kevin Burdette delivered the goods as Dr Bartolo. He sings at my church, and it is always thrilling when he gets a solo. Very powerful, true bass voice, even throughout all the registers. He is a gifted and stylish musician. I wish I could have seen this.

    • phillyof

      Yes, Ilka, Burdette did deliver the goods. I meant “Baccaloni-esque” as a compliment, btw, b/c I’d been listening to a 1950 Barber with Baccaloni as Bartolo. Baccaloni put all he had into the role, and so did Burdette. I had a prophetic vision, when I put that word in my review, that someone was going to say “and how do you know what baccaloni sounded like, are you that old?” Well, for the record, yes I am. Salvatore & I shared the same wet nurse in Rome. BTW, I found a Baccaloni Philadelphia connection via Wikipedia: “Baccaloni also sang often in Philadelphia with a succession of opera companies from 1951 through to 1966. He made his debut with the Philadelphia Civic Grand Opera Company in 1951 in the title role of Don Pasquale, his debut with the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company in 1956, as Benoît/Alcindoro La Bohème, and his debut with the Philadelphia Lyric Opera Company in 1959, as Benoît/Alcindoro.”

  • pasavant

    Has the Philly Opera Company used amplification for the Barber? Have put off going to their Barber after the disastrously amplified Garcia Lorca thing last year.

    • phillyof

      I think the Garcia Lorca was amplified because of the singers weren’t opera singers, per se. The score is basically jazz/flamenco etc music. The singers were more that style of singing. Just like the amplify Broadway these days. Ugh. But Barbere isn’t amplified or miked. Frankly, the aucoustics at the Academy of Music are so good, why would you want to f*** that up?

  • Will

    I’ve been a big fan of Kevin Burdette for years--he’s a great performer with a fine voice and he’s a gifted actor. Several years ago he announced he was going to take a law degree and I was afraid we’d lose him on stage.
    We’ve had him a couple of times here in Boston and I’m delighted he’s resuming his career.