James Conlon, Music Director for the LA Opera, often does the pre-game lecture in the huge open space on the second floor lobby of the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion and it’s almost always a standing room only crowd. Before opening night on Saturday he related how a performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia by a fledgling local company lit the fire in him to be a conductor at the tender age of 11.
Another interesting story is that in 1972, when Conlon was at Juilliard studying conducting and doing coaching and répétiteur work, Thomas Schippers pulled out suddenly of a student production of La Boheme. This was at the same time Maria Callas was doing her now legendary master classes and she was the one, having seen Conlon’s work during the time she was there, who put a flea in the ear of the Juilliard powers that be to promote Conlon to the podium. The rest, as we say in Hollywood, is a lot of hard work.
Not long after, that very same year, Conlon got the opportunity to conduct his “dream opera” with a cast that included a young Maria Ewing. Then it disappeared from his repertory for the next 43 years until this last weekend. Which means that, oddly enough, Maestro Conlon and I have something in common because Saturday night’s performance was only my second Barbiere di Siviglia. I’m not a fan, frankly. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Rossini but I lean toward the seria side. My CD collection, which allegedly stretches from here to the moon and back includes every Tancredi, Semiramide, Italiana, Ermione and Il Viaggio a Reims I could lay hands on but only one recording of the Barber (it came as part of a set.)
This production is enjoying its second revival here in Los Angeles since its debut in 2009. The original production, the inspiration of director Emilio Sagi, premiered at the Teatro Real in Madrid in 2005 and has already been issued on video from that first run of performances. The directing duties this time around were entrusted to Trevore Ross who’s done a superlative job of keeping this whirling dervish of a production spinning under it’s own perpetual motion.
The delicious cream and silver set Llorenç Corbella uses to represent 18th century Seville glides on in pieces guided by a cast of identically-dressed caped gentlemen who appear from a trap door at the center of a bare stage halfway through the overture. My hat is doffed first to the troupe of dancers and mimes who first comprise the crazed flamenco-dancing population of Seville and then morph in the second act into the nosiest, most scheming, band of household servants it’s ever been my pleasure to encounter. Initially I was off put by their manaical busyness but as it all went from one inspired gag to another their constant bustle turned into delight that only highlighted the musical score.
Costume designer Renata Schusheim used a mostly black and white palette with semi-traditional line but fabrics that seemed more influenced by the 1920’s. Nothing really locked into a time period, but rather was driven by character and it worked beautifully.
My problem with bel opera in the theatre is that there’s usually someone whom the rest of the cast has to carry along like a lap dog because they can’t keep up. I’m not necessarily looking at the basses but you know who you are.
I’m most happy to report that this was not the case with the Don Basilio of Kristinn Sigmundssun. He was a sight gag from the moment he took the stage because in a cast of average sized people (I don’t think anyone was much over 5’9”), Mr Sigmundssun towered over 6’5”. With his enormous wig and hat he could have been an NBA draft pick. His elephantine basso rattled around the theater to hilarious effect especially in the imaginatively staged “La calunnia.” Even funnier was a gag in the last act when the tenor jumped onto a chair and was still dwarfed by Mr. Sigmundssun. This established Wagnerian was entirely game and his singing was always precise.
Another great pleasure was seasoned veteran Alessandro Corbelli as Doctor Bartolo. His patter aria right up to the standards you’d expect from a performer who’s essentially a Rossinian hustler at this stage of his career. He knows every trick, plays them with a shrewd hand, and adds a few more.
The Figaro of Rodion Pogossov was new to me and his singing, which started at very good, only get better as the evening progressed. It almost seemed that with each new number and its particular set of challenges, the bar was placed just a tad higher each time. He’s a supple comedian on the stage and he had a matador’s cape flourish in the last scene that I don’t think anyone present will be able to forget for a long time. It’s a beautiful rich baritone sound with an easy top and not only was his diction superb but he knows how to land a punchline even if he is speaking a language foreign to the majority of the audience.
Count Almaviva was tenor René Barbera, who was the only singer in the relatively short history of Domingo’s Operalia competition to sweep all top three awards in 2011. One can easily understand why. Barbera is no mere tenore di grazia. His is a full lyric instrument with an easy, bright, top that’s got some extra bloom and boasts an extraordinary coloratura facility.
He put it to immediate use with an “Ecco ridente” that was memorable not only for the endless, spinning, breadth of his phrasing, but the delicacy of his pianos, and the prudent use of an unfaked trill in cadenza. By the time he was well warmed up for “Cessa di piu resistere” his concentration, both of mind and of tone, had taken on a laser-like intensity. So fleet and accurate were his first run of roulades in the cavatina that there were audible gasps in the audience from dozens of people.
But I’m really here to sing the praises of Elizabeth DeShong. Having already sampled her art from the DVD of Lucrezia Borgia from San Francisco I was keeping some very high hopes in check for her LA Opera debut as Rossini’s Rosina. I needn’t have worried. It’s a plum-ripe, juicy mezzo with thunder on the top and her coloratura is full power with no “ha-ha-ha-ha” aspirations. Her vocal production is seamless and she is never off the breath (even in a couple spots where I would have liked her to be as in “…ma” in “Una voce poco fa.”) She was unfailingly nuanced in everything she did and is an adroit comedian, especially when disposing of the thrown kisses of her guardian. I want to hear her in all of the Rossini travesti roles now and eagerly await her Italiana Isabella.
Maestro Conlon in the pit got everything he wanted out of the LA Opera orchestra. Fleeter than fleet playing from the winds and excellent pontecello string playing in the crescendos. Synchronization from pit to orchestra faltered only momentarily for a few in the second act when our trio of soloists jumped the gun slightly. They were quickly and masterfully put to rights. In a production this busy with mountains of stage business it’s almost a miracle it happened for only that brief moment. Tamara Sanikidze should also be praised for her nimble pianoforte that kept the recits. moving right along.
I went straight home and watched the DVD from Madrid which I was saving until I had seen this live. I have to say that both musically and theatrically the LA Opera’s mounting far exceeds the standards set down in the commercial release. This is the second installment of the “Figaro Unbound” project for LA Opera that started with The Ghosts of Versailles, included a staged reading of Beaumarchais’ La Mére Coupable and will culminate with the Mozart Nozze di Figaro. If the benchmark continues to be met at this level I may not recover my poise.
Photos: Craig T. Mathew