The Barber of Philadelphia


Opera Philadelphia’s production of The Barber of Seville is an everything-but-the-castanets Spanish extravaganza. Loosely inspired by Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, it largely sustains a manic, self-consciously kitschy style, anchored by Jennifer Holloway (Rosina) and Kevin Burdette (Bartolo), two singers with excellent comic skills.

The Barber of Seville. Opera Philadelphia, 10/1/2014. Production directed by Michael Shell with

There are various theories about what the Seville setting of the Figaro plays meant to Beaumarchais (they were probably inspired by a trip to Madrid); for Mozart and Rossini the setting does not seem to have been a major musical factor. But a handful of opera directors seem intent on giving this setting grand hermeneutic significance. In the Met’s new Figaro, I didn’t grasp the purpose of the Spanish exotica. For Barber, it’s a better fit, not because of the setting itself but because of the nature of the work. It’s a lighter piece whose farcical plot is made for schtick, and it is schtick that Michael Shell’s production supplies (though the details of the setting are also more thoroughly worked out).

Lesson scene

Shoko Kambara’s set is a simple set of flats in gaudy 1970’s prints (the time is cutely described as “B.C. (before cellphones)”). Figaro, for reasons which aren’t entirely clear, still looks somewhat eighteenth century, while the Count Almaviva is a movie star, as indicated by a poster in the first scene and magazines thereafter, and Bartolo is an optometrist (one of the more visually unique and yet less bloody of medical specialties). The street is populated by the inevitable flamenco dancers and bullfighters, the Spanish equivalent of mariachis (in the opening), and a lady in stilts. If you know Almodovar’s film, you’ll chuckle at the roosters and dosed gazpacho, if not they aren’t a major factor.

“Largo al factotum”

Such an approach demands a lot of energy and charm from the cast and orchestra. Corrado Rovaris’s conducting was light and peppy, but not an assertive presence. The production works best where the music and plot energy help to carry things along, and falls a little flat where the effort becomes apparent. I did not find “Largo al factotum,” a street scene with the whole chorus, convincing: Figaro addresses the audience, seemingly oblivious of the colorful crowd surrounding him, and they seemed only a distraction. In contrast, the Act 1 finale, invaded by a large number of police officers in exceptionally colorful uniforms, is a riot.

The production has its greatest asset in Kevin Burdette, who may be the funniest man in American opera. He is certainly its best physical comedian (as was already apparent in the New York City Opera’s La Périchole). As Bartolo, a character who never knows how ridiculous he is, he is a one-man ministry of silly walks, incessantly switches multiple pairs of glasses and, in “A un dottor della mia sorte,” has an eye exam go horribly wrong. It only helps that, tall and skinny with a mustache, he looks like an actual optometrist. His bass is smooth, reliable, excellent in patter, and plenty loud. Opera companies: you need to put on Don Pasquale with him.

Almost his match is Jennifer Holloway’s Rosina, who is coolly above the fray at most points and always seeing things before anyone else. Her smoky mezzo succeeds more on color and charm than virtuosity. Taylor Stayton’s Count Almaviva was very funny in the lesson scene, in which the Count appears as a yoga-practicing hippie with a sitar. He’s got a strong sound with some of the bleat common to Rossini tenors, but his coloratura was spot on. I wasn’t sure if he had a “Cessa di più resistere” in him or not, but he did attempt it, which went pretty well until a somewhat aspirated last few minutes. (Also, as Lindoro his resemblance to a young Woody Allen is, considering the plot, rather unfortunate—send him to Bartolo for a different pair of glasses.)

Jonathan Beyer’s Figaro was, as evidenced by his late placement in this review, not the star of the show. His straightforward Figaro was overshadowed by the more sharply characterized portrayals around him and his singing was adequate but lacks dramatic flair. Wayne Tigges did his best to sell a 1970s rocker version of Basilio, and sometimes the effort was obvious (the dance moves require slightly more shamelessness than he seemed to project) but the singing was good. Katrina Thurman was entertaining as a bimbo Berta.

All in all, a fun production with a strong cast and an excellent show for Opera Philadelphia. I hadn’t seen this opera in ages and was delighted to see it again. After teaching a three-hour seminar on World War I that afternoon, it was just what I needed.

The Barber of Seville continues tonight and October 5.

Photos copyright Kelly & Massa.

You may also like