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.