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.