Washington National Opera

Barber of Seville: Funny as Ever, But the Night Belonged to Isabel Leonard

Reviewed by Ed Cloos

Seen May 4, 2018

As staged under the direction of Peter Kazaras, Gioachini Rossini's opera buffa kept the audience laughing, but it was the performance of Isabel Leonard that enthralled, and her curtain-call applause, with everyone standing, brought down the house.

It wasn't all Miss Leonard by any means. There were surprises and delights in just about every role, which is as it should be in a work with only a few singing roles.

Based on the first of a trilogy of “Figaro plays,” by Pierre-Augustin Caron, who later added “de Beaumarchais” to his name for a touch of nobility, Cesare Sterbini's libretto tells the story of Count Almaviva's continually frustrated efforts to court and marry lovely Rosina. She is an orphan who had been the ward of Dr. Bartolo and now is a prisoner in his house. He's determined to marry her since she has come of age. The young lovers eventually succeed, but we know, as the audience did when the opera first opened in 1816, that the romance soon cooled, as detailed in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, which had opened 30 years earlier. The Beaumarchais plays themselves were also popular and regularly performed.

The antics of the opera revolve around the increasingly elaborate efforts of Almaviva, in the guise of Lindoro, supposedly a student, to get into the Bartolo house and find time alone with Rosina. He's enlisted the aid of Figaro, who has just arrived in Seville to ply his trade.

Figaro makes his entrance with a lusty aria by Moldovan baritone Andrey Zhilikhovshy, making his American debut. He isn't new to the role, and truly has mastered it. (Moldova is a small country tucked between Romania and Ukraine.) One of the opera's musical highlights, he declares that he is the city's factotem, a man who can perform any service. We never actually see him perform any barbering duties, except to lather up Dr. Bartolo for an unwanted shave in one of the efforts to help the young lovers.

Rosina's opening aria comes soon after, “I think I heard a voice,” in her mezzo that is often described as “pretty,” and her coloratura was all of that. She's also long been a proven comic actress.

Dr. Bartolo was Italian baritone Paolo Bordogna, who is a buffo specialist as a performer and as a scholar of the art. Art it is as the comedy has to build. It can't be just broad clowning from start to finish or it would be tiresome. Build, it did: we first meet Bartolo as canny and in control as he thwarts every attempt of Rosina to have contact with the outside world. The combined wiles of Figaro, Rosina and Almaviva bring order to the brink of chaos by the end of the first act.

American tenor Taylor Stayton, whom I hadn't heard before, has mastered the role of Almaviva as he's played it more than just about anything else in Europe and in America. His is a bright high tenor.

Chinese bass Wei Wu, Bartolo's partner in crime Don Basilio, showed versatile comic talent and his rich voice, especially in his aria La Calunnia, in which he sings of the power of slander. The slander is that Lindoro is dishonest with Rosina, and is working in the interest of Count Almaviva. It works for a while, until Lindoro reveals to Rosina that he actually IS Almaviva.

Choreographer Rosa Mercedes met many challenges and handled them all gracefully. Although there are only a few speaking and singing parts great numbers of police and guards filled the stage in comic scenes, and the fast-paced comic scenes had to be kept in order.

Up and coming conductor Emily Senturia dealt deftly with the complex score which rose and fell with the action, especially the crescendo in the slander scene as the slander grows.

Barber of Seville is a revival of WNO's own production, last seen in 2009.

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