By Montague Gammon III
A wildly madcap, vividly colorful, gleefully and respectfully updated and “especially Spanish” production of Rossini’s ever popular Barber of Seville comes to the Harrison Opera House as Virginia Opera’s second production of the current Season, trailing its praises behind it.
Gioachino Rossini’s 1816 rom-com farce of disguises, romance, subterfuge, courtship, wealth, love, celebrity, seduction, low-level jealousy and harmless greed – and still more romance – is not only one of the standard works in operatic repertory, but just might include the most widely recognized of all operatic arias – “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro” – more properly known as “Largo al factotum,” or “Make way for the jack of all trades.”
Stage director Michael Shell has brought the 200 year old show into a time of not too long ago, a recently past pre-digital time in which “we can still believe that people would write letters and send notes,” and he has placed the action in the titular Andalusian capital during the week long Seville April Fair, or Feria de Abril.
That’s a very real and very popular springtime fiesta of parties, parades, carousing and feasting – and doubtless romance – that has been going strong for some 147 years.
The carnival atmosphere of the Seville Festival not only allows for this show’s costumes to be flamboyant and from many periods, and for its scenery to be vividly hued, but also creates “a world in which all these crazy things can happen but no one seems to think it’s unusual.”
In a telephone conversation Shell emphasized that respect for the text and for the music lay at the foundation of everything he has put on stage. (For example, flamenco costumes are popular in the real Feria, but Shell could not find a way to make flamenco dance a part of the show while remaining faithful to the libretto and score, so no flamenco dancing here.)
Shell previously staged this version of The Barber of Seville in Philadelphia, St. Louis and Omaha, garnering comments for Omaha staging such as “hilariously delightful” and “perfectly timed” and “exhilaratingly funny” from Opera News Magazine, which is the house publication of the [New York] Metropolitan Opera Guild. The magazine also praised his “thoughtful and detailed score study.”
(This not a touring show. Rather it is re-rehearsed and re-mounted here, with the same brightly colored and bold costume, set and lighting designs that were used elsewhere, but, with one exception, different performers. Matthew Burns recreates his role as the emotionally blind ophthalmologist Doctor Bartolo. Shell called Burns’ earlier renditions of this role “perfect,” Opera News said his performance was “exemplary.”)
Virginia Beach native and Governor’s School for the Arts grad Will Liverman returns to Hampton Roads, by way of Wheaton, Juilliard, Lyric Opera of Chicago and a host of other companies, as “A baritone to watch,” according to Opera News.
Liverman makes his Virginia Opera debut as the clever barber/fixer/expediter Figaro, the master manipulator who “controls the show,” and who even makes the set changes happen.
Former VO Emerging Artist Megan Marino plays Rosina, the object of much romantic attention, while another product of the Emerging Artists program, Andrew Owens, plays her disguised suitor Count Almaviva, here seen as a “very rich … tabloid celebrity,” the sort who is besieged by paparazzi.
Shell has given Rosina a “kinetic” quality – Opera News used the term “libidinous” – and made the usually dowdy character Berta a “snappy dresser” who is out to snare Dr. Bartolo, whom she has long loved.
“The biggest things,” Shell says, “are grounding it in Spain and [creating] an insular world [where] we can believe that all these things happen.”
Opera News placed Shell among “the great storytellers” and termed his Barber a “grand night of joyous entertainment for all.”
The Barber of Seville
Nov. 11, 13 & 15
Harrison Opera House
160 W Virginia Beach Blvd.
Norfolk, Virginia 23510
(Additional performances in Richmond and Fairfax)