A Geometric Take on Rossini's Soufflé
Brown Theater, Wortham Center
10/21/2011 - and Oct 23*, 29, Nov 4, 6, 2011
Gioacchino Rossini: Il barbiere di Siviglia
Boris Dyakov (Fiorello), Lawrence Brownlee (Count Almaviva), Nathan Gunn (Figaro), Ana María Martínez (Rosina), Patrick Carfizzi (Dr. Bartolo), Kyle Ketelsen (Don Basilio), Catherine Cook (Berta), Charlie Mellor (Sergeant)
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Leonardo Vordoni (conductor)
Joan Font (director), Joan Guillen (set & costume designer), Albert Faura (lighting designer)
L. Brownlee, A. M. Martínez (© Felix Sanchez)
Rossini's The Barber of Seville has always come close to be a cloying opera to me. Sugary sweet, overflowing with coloratura, unabashedly hokey and structurally lopsided, performances that don't ham the opera up enough fall flat. It takes exaggeration and even a little self-effacement, a sentiment visited several times in the opera's libretto, to make the piece work. HGO's production, opening the 2011-12 season, is certainly not short on chutzpah, with the entire cast clearly committed to making the most out of each joke they have, be it physical or musical. Of course, this strategy too wouldn't work if the singing weren't as impeccable as it is.
Leading the way is Nathan Gunn, the hammiest of the hams. "Largo al factotum" sets the tone for the vocal accomplishments of the opera, with Gunn leaping and diving through the music, tossing off perfectly timed falsetto jabs and rollicking scalar passages and showing himself a true vocal factotum. This infectious good humor is present in all cast members, as is the virtuosity of the singing. Lawrence Brownlee is a true Rossini tenor, possessing mercurial agility and a voice that can project but never becomes rough or strained. His diction is impeccable and his acting makes us cheer him along throughout the piece, even if we already know he gets Rosina in the end. It can be hard to pull off a "rich underdog," but Brownlee does just that.
Ana María Martínez is effervescent as Rosina. One year ago we saw the dark, bittersweet side of her talent as Cio-Cio-San, and her ability to make this technically demanding role sound effortless, light and fun is incredible. She has come into her own over the past few seasons, and her voice is acquiring a distinctive, pleasant and immediately recognizable sound. One can easily see her following the path of other HGO studio alumni into international opera superstardom.
Patrick Carfizzi and Kyle Ketelsen are excellent as both villains and comic reliefs. Carfizzi's macking of Rosina is literally a lough-out-loud moment. Catherine Cook, too, delivers as Berta. The sincerity of her "Il vecchiotto cerca moglie" is a highlight of the second act and casts aside any doubts that she is too young to convince in this role.
The voices are such highlights that they make up for a somewhat lackluster production design. The geometric, modular sets work well but looks rickety, surely not sturdy or extravagant enough to house a wealthy doctor. Details are overlooked, too. Figaro sings that there are five wigs in the window of his shop, but the set designers have only placed three. One impressive touch is the mileage gotten out of a simple tree on stage that changes in appearance as the story unfolds. The costumes are Looney Tune inspired and the color palette is smartly matched to characters' roles and associations throughout.
Leonardo Vordoni looks good when he conducts, but there were several moments of slack coordination between stage and pit, especially in larger ensemble and choral set pieces, resulting in a failure of some of the more climactic moments to really hit home. Given the consistent quality of the HGO chorus and orchestra under other leadership, I have to place the blame on Vordoni.
Overall, this is an enjoyable performance of this bon-bon, especially from a vocal standpoint. One hopes that HGO is simply saving some extravagance for the season's future productions.
Marcus Karl Maroney