Cher Public

Busyness as usual

Every couple of months that article gets tossed around on social media, the one with Sixteen Words with No Translation! and then of course their translations, because otherwise it would be a very short article. Did you know that other languages express in one word things that English expresses in several? It’s true! Anyway the word I always hope to see on there is the Yiddish “ongepotchket.” It’s a good word. Useful. Specific. It mostly just means “tacky” but also with an element of “ill-thought-out” and “everything but the kitchen sink.”  

I don’t suppose I need to see it better defined in print, as I’ve now seen it admirably played out onstage. Emilio Sagi’s production of The Barber of Seville, now in its first revival at the San Francisco Opera, has some very pretty things in it, some very ungainly things in it, some baffling, some obvious… it’s ungepotchket in the flesh.

The good news is, as it often has been these few seasons at the War Memorial, that wandering around in this aesthetic circus is a smart and capable ensemble of singers who manage to make of it something that is often sweetly funny and never less than watchable. You’ll probably be surprised if I start with the Bartolo, but that’s right where I’m starting, because possibly the most fun I had all evening was watching Alessandro Corbelli, now 63, showing why you should keep experienced singers on your roster.

Corbelli did what the production around him wouldn’t: he played the comedy relatively small, trusting his expertise in a Rossini patter to carry the moment,which it did. “A un dottore” found him admittedly in dryish voice, but because he was clearly untroubled about pulling off a difficult sing, he was free to find the laughs in what can be a pretty formulaic comic number. It was pro stuff,a delight to watch, and not a consonant went astray.

Though much younger, Lucas Meachem took a similar approach to Figaro. During the baritone’s first few moments in Act I (having pedaled a bicycle onstage, because reasons), I found myself confused: he’s mugging so much—I thought—Why am I still enjoying this? I think it’s because the role is easy for him, which allows for an insouciant bravado. The mugging feels like the character, not the singer, which makes an enormous difference. Yes, he indulged in one of the cliches I long to see the end of, the final “Figaro!” in “Largo al Factotum” in girlish falsetto, but there was nary another false note so I can’t hold it too much against him. It’s a capacious, handsome voice, and his comic timing was unflagging.

Rosina and Almaviva were equally well cast. Daniela Mack had already made a fine impression in last season’s Partenope, which she solidified here. You know, I’ve read about that recent production of Hamlet in which Bombazine Bandersnatch delivers “To Be or Not to Be” at the beginning, thereby relieving the audience of the need to sit through much of the play waiting for The Part We All Know, and I sometimes wish we could have a similar Barber with “Largo” and “Una voce” out of the way right off the bat.

I mention it because Mack, for all her natural stage comportment and ironclad florid technique didn’t interest me greatly in her aria, and I’m tempted to blame it on the piece just being too horribly familiar at this point, because immediately after, she was a bewitching Rosina, a good comedienne and a nimble partner in ensembles. Her voice outstrips that of many young mezzos by virtue of its surety at either extreme.

She’s by no stretch of the imagination a contralto but the chest notes are legit. It’s a relief that Rene Barbera is as good as he is at Rossini, as it seems like he may be the go-to from here on out. Things get a bit pinchy at the top of the voice, but the man knows his way around a sixteenth note or, more to the point of them, several dozen of them.

Andrea Silvestrelli rounded out the cast as an enormous-voiced Basilio. As much as I’d like to make a “putting the ‘fun’ in basso profundo” joke here, I’m going to pretend that I didn’t, and move right along to saying that I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a bass transpose “La Calunnia” down a step, but that is just what happened here on account of Silvestrelli’s resounding profundita. A little too much was made of his Mutt & Jeff stage pairing with singers of shorter stature, but Silvestrelli was a game ensemble player. When the whole gang got together for the end of the first act, the chemistry was such that one was able to largely ignore, well…

As I started to say several millennia ago, at the start of this review, all around this fine singing was being peddled a rather pedestrian kind of nuttyness. The stage was divided in two: stage left, Bartolo’s house; stage right, something that was variously the street, the prop room, and if I’m not mistaken, the unconscious.

The house was on a rake, out from under which (surely Finnish has a single preposition for that) were handed instruments and flowers and god knows what all else. Catherine Cook (funny and robust as Berta) and Efrain Solis (underused here as Ambrogio, who is asked to feel up Berta during her aria) at one point were made to leave the stage by crawling under it. It was all a bit much, culminating in an exit for Almaviva and Rosina that nodded admiringly to its better, the last scene of Grease.

There were fireworks. There were instruments handed from the stage into the pit. There were some rather exhausting dancers who, at the outset of the evening in the inevitable staged overture, ran circles around a giant bust of Rossini. It lacked only Stephon to introduce it: it had everything.

The Barber of Seville runs, surprisingly, only four more performances, through December 9.


  • armerjacquino

    Brilliant, as ever. And yes, come the revolution falsetto Figaros will be first against the wall, as will any baritone who sings that aria in a competition (cf ‘Je Veux Vivre’).

    The idea of putting ‘To be or not to be’ at the beginning was cut during previews, by the way, because trying things out is what previews are for, but various unscrupulous newspapers sent critics to the first preview so it lodged in everyone’s mind that it was a feature of the production.

    • manou

      From today’s Times, from am article about Allan Clayton:

      “When we do Brett Dean’s Hamlet at Glyndebourne, the chorus will be spread all over the theatre,” he promises. “Oh, and Brett is starting the whole opera with the words ‘. . . or not to be’.” Hmm, I wonder where he got that idea from?

  • Batty Masetto

    “stage right, something that was variously the street, the prop room, and if I’m not mistaken, the unconscious”

    LOL. Love it!

  • Cocky Kurwenal

    La Calumnia is legit in D major or C major -- did Silvestrelli do something else? Furlanetto does it in C on the rare occasions he sings the role.

    I’m glad you enjoyed Corbelli. Last time I saw him I felt that, if anything, his voice is sounding fuller and fresher than it did. The dryness you mention is still there but I think it was worse in the 1990s.

    • SilvestriWoman

      Second that… Only weeks ago, I saw Corbelli here in Lyric’s Cenerentola, and he blew me away. His voice was remarkably fresh, only flagging a teensy bit at the end of his aria at the top of Act 2. In fact, I had to Google him at intermission to confirm his age. There are singers half his age (and younger) who cannily dream of singing so beautifully and with such remarkable stamina.

  • Thank you as always for a delightful read, Greg. And I now know a new Yiddish word. Must try to work “ongepotchket” into my conversation sometime…

    • Greg.Freed

      In my family it’s pronounced “ungepotchkeh” but the internet likes ongepotchket so I’m not sure how to advise!

      • Rowna

        We were ungepotchked as well. And I am so glad to see Yiddish on Parterre. Sometimes the sets of opera productions have too many tchockies, but if the leading lady has a shayne punim, you don’t have to worry about shpielkis!

        • Batty Masetto

          Oy, but some of those farkakte shmattes they put on the ladies these days!

          • manou

            I feel I should contribute some Ladino -- but it is much less colourful.

            • Rowna

              Here is a little part of a Ladino song. Unfortunately, I said “fiestas” instead of “festas” as I am pretty fluent in Spanish, and they are very similar. You can hear the monotone Rabbi singing next to me. Such a challenge I plotzed every time he shried! Well, it isn’t opera, but Chanukah is right around the corner.

  • Satisfied
  • Camille

    Whatever Emilio Sagi’s “ungepotchketheit” as regisseur--he is still a member of a very distinguished Spanish musical family, perhaps his uncle’s name — baritenor Luis Sagi-Vela --is most renown:

    I just LOVE this wonderful word but fear that, as an ungenteel gentile, I am not entitled to use it, leider!

  • tiger1

    “I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a bass transpose “La Calunnia” down a step, but that is just what happened here on account of Silvestrelli’s resounding profundita.” This would seem to indicate, then, that you, Greg, cannot have heard La Calunnia very often -- unless, of course, Mr Silvestrelli took it down to B…

    A few quotes: Mary Elaine and Robert Wallace: Opera Scenes for Class and Stage: “Don Basilio’s aria “La calunnia” is usually transposed a whole step, calling for a bass (B1-E3)”. Alan Montgomery: Opera Coaching: “Most arias should be sung only in the original key, the exception being some arias that are “always” transposed such as “La calunnia” from Il Barbiere di Siviglia by Rossini (usually sung in C major instead of D)”.

    If one looks at the tessitura of La Calunnia in D, it is very high, with sustained high Fshards and a lot of Es. So not really for singers like Ghiaurov and the likes who usually sing this role.

    • Greg.Freed

      Lazy reporting meets lack of absolute pitch, I’m afraid. The press packet noted that it was transposed down, and I assumed this was unusual for a bass aria. I’ve heard La Calunnia as much as the next frequent-La-Calunnia-hearer.

      • tiger1

        I am sure you have -- and I should not just have focused on this small lapse but also thanked you for a good review. Sorry.

    • lorenzo.venezia

      Beware the lethal F shard.