A Woman on Stilts and a Dream Ballet featuring human-sized chickens are just two of the wacky surprises that greeted audiences at Utah Opera on Saturday night for its season-opener Rossini production. The Barber of Seville. Extras also included naughty nuns, Napoleonic soldiers throwing confetti, and a recurring chicken and rooster design that is never explained.
Set designer Shoko Kamburra and costume designer Amanda Seymour have created a colorful, carnival world reminiscent of mid-century modern design and 1960s fashion, yet deviant enough to be totally original. Combined with director Michael Shell’s frenzied and largely comedic staging, the production was a joyous pastiche, reminding viewers of a certain age of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.
The directing worked because it accentuated the sparkling silliness of Rossini’s music and Cesare Sterbini’s libretto. The opera tells the story of an earl who, with the help of his barber, disguises himself as a poor student, soldier and ultimately music teacher to woo a woman who is kept under lock and key by her guardian, a doctor who has intend to marry her. The characters’ machinations don’t make much sense under close scrutiny, and it’s never entirely clear why the Earl – who is powerful enough to avoid being arrested at some point by revealing his identity to the police – don’t just announce themselves and their intentions at the start.
Featuring some of the most famous and beloved arias of all operas, Rossini’s sublime score seems to nod to the ridiculousness of the plot, as he shamelessly showcases his own skills and those of the singers in a dizzying array of covers and ensembles which, although de rigor in the bel canto style, do little to advance the plot. Shell, Kamburra, and Seymour – all making their Utah opera debut – match Rossini’s shamelessness, filling the space Rossini gives them with a camp and falls that amaze at every turn.
While playing the title role with easy charisma and excellent comedic timing, Michael Adams’ portrayal of Figaro’s opening aria “Largo al Factotum” lacked vocal power and on a few occasions he did. been drowned by the orchestra. However, he found his voice as the evening wore on.
Like Rosina, Sarah Coit was captivating. His opening tune “Una voce poco fa” displayed a clear, natural tone and his phrasing – and that of the orchestra under Gary Thor Wedow – was exquisite. Throughout the evening, her voice has been at the service of her character, drawing audiences to sympathize with Rosina’s plight.
As Almaviva, tenor Matthew Grills also impressed with a clear and natural tone and the compatibility of the voices of the romantic protagonists added to their chemistry. His sweet interpretation of “Se il mio nome”) which he sings to Rosina in front of his window, conquered the public as well as his future.
Perhaps the biggest laughs were earned by Matthew Burns as Doctor Bartolo, who played an unhappy father in a late 1960s sitcom. He got into the physical comedy of his role while singing his baritone role with precision and brilliance. In this production he was an optometrist and Rosina was his assistant. At one point, Shell decided to have them give an eye exam to a frightened patient as they argued in a recitative, and the two skillfully handled the complicated physical comedy, without losing a note or a fulfillment.
This production featured Don Basilio as a strutting Italian pop singer, whom Adam Lau played extensively, occasionally holding a false microphone and doing an Elvis-style bump and grind as his rich bass voice glided easily over Rossini’s sheet music. His portrayal of “La Calunnia” (“slander”) was one of the highlights of the musical evening, and the duplicity and confusion of his character created an excellent foil for Adams as Figaro.
Rounding out a great cast, Julia Gershkoff added some laughs with her earthy and somewhat alluring portrayal of Doctor Bartolo’s maid, Berta, delivering a charming take on her comedic tune.
From the opening stronghold, Wedow captured the spirit, refinement and energy of the score, skillfully phrasing the quiet parts and buzzing under the raucous ensembles.
The zenith of the wacky staging was the scene of Count Almaviva disguised as a music teacher. Dressed in lime green and forest green vertical striped pants, a floral blouse, love beads and a leather waistcoat and wearing a sitar, the count sings “Pace y gioia” (“peace and happiness’) walking past Dr. Bartolo and his servants, spreads out a yoga mat and proceeds to sage the room. He then launches into yoga sun salutations and is in the middle of a downward dog pose, when Dr. Bartolo finally asks who he is, addressing the Earl’s butt. Although campy, the scene remained true to the sense of the scene in the original opera and the additional elements accentuated the laughs that were already expected.
The Barber of Seville runs through October 17 at the Janet Quinney Lawson Capitol Theater. usuo.org