Even though I am a self-proclaimed bel canto whore, I think I was more excited for La Maratonista to see Il barbiere di Siviglia (the Barber of Seville) at the San Francisco Opera than I was myself. Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled to experience a new production of one of the few operas I had seen prior to becoming an aficionada, but I just knew she would love it (and she did).
Given that our opera odyssey began four years ago with Le nozze di Figaro, it seemed the perfect way to close out our opera year. Unfortunately, for the first time since we began subscribing, we arrived too late to take our seats in dress circle and had to watch the (very long) first act standing in the back of the orchestra section. We have very good subscription seats, but it was surprising how much closer one feels on the floor, even in the back.
While Il barbiere is not my favorite opera by Rossini—that would be La Cenerentola (Cinderella)—it is the only one I’ve seen live. In fact, I’ve seen very few bel canto works on the stage, only Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Lucrezia Borgia and Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi. However, according to The Opera Tattler, we should be getting both La Cenerentola and Bellini’s Norma here in San Francisco next year. I hope so.
The plot of Il barbiere is quite simple, Count Almaviva is in love with Rosina, the ward of Dr. Bartolo. Bartolo keeps Rosina confined to the house as he is after her money and wants to marry her himself. Figaro, who is employed by Bartolo, agrees to help Almaviva gain entry to woo Rosina. When a plan to be billeted in the house as a soldier fails in Act I, Almaviva returns as a replacement for Basilio, the “ailing” music teacher, in Act II. Naturally, hijinks ensue. Speaking of hijinks, check out Bugs Bunny in Rabbit of Seville, which uses almost the whole of Rossini’s overture.
Il barbiere is undoubtedly one of the greatest opera buffe of all time and this new production, co-produced with the Lithuanian National Opera, embraces that humor with a vengeance. It was great fun, but you could cut the shtick and meta with a knife. In fact, at times, the staging by director Emilio Sagi was really too distracting and overwhelmed the performances. I thought the progression from an all-white setting at the beginning to a riot of color in the finale was an interesting choice (set design by Llorenç Corbella and costumes by Pepa Ojanguren), though I fail to see why we needed to have yet another set with an underbelly. It may have made sense in Der fliegende Holländer and Falstaff, but here? Not so much.
Production excesses aside, this may have been the most impressive cast of the season. Everyone seemed incredibly suited to their roles and sang with beautiful tone and much enthusiasm. The titular role was played by baritone Lucas Meachem (last seen in that other Seville opera, Don Giovanni), who shared the SFO stage with newcomers mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard as Rosina and tenor Javier Camarena as Count Almaviva. Rounding out the cast were Alessandro Corbelli as Doctor Bartolo, Andrea Silvestrelli as Don Basilio, and Catherine Cook as Berta.
Obviously this is a great opera for newbies, but I can’t imagine even a jaded opera veteran wouldn’t enjoy this bubbly and witty production.
There are five more performances of The Barber of Seville at the War Memorial Opera House on November 22, 23, 26, 29 and December 1. All remaining performances begin at 8 p.m. except December 1.