Review: ‘The Barber of Seville’ at the Kennedy Center

The current production of the Washington National Opera –Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville plays like a frenetically captivating musical dreamscape of schemers, clowns, and romantic lovers. Director Peter Kazaras wisely lets the popular strains of Rossini’s beloved music carry the very fluid pacing of the production and Kazaras allows the show to “breathe” in a straightforward and open-hearted manner. His approach befits this very popular escapist opera and the tone of this production markedly accentuates the slapstick, pratfalls and physical comedy that the entire ensemble engages in.

The Barber of Seville. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Conductor Emily Senturia conducts with rousing flourishes when needed —especially in the entrancing overture—but she astutely wields her baton with sensitivity and panache to underscore the many comic antics that ensue as the libretto by Cesare Sterbini progresses. The Washington National Opera Orchestra has rarely sounded so vibrant and infectiously pleasing to the ear.

Though Director Kazaras delivers a fairly straightforward interpretation, he, concurrently, adds many “tongue-in-cheek” touches and often casts an amusingly observant and tolerant eye towards the human condition in all its follies and foibles.

The cacophonous euphoria that encapsulated my mind’s eye was definitively shown in the masterful finale of Act One as the Director, through some amazing alchemy with Choreographer Rosa Mercedes, portrayed the entire ensemble with an anarchistic yet highly choreographed spirit of merriment and folly (shades of the Marx Brothers!).

Lighting Design by Mark McCullough was mesmerizing as this talented ensemble suffers auditory hallucinations (“Mi par d’esser con la testa in un’orrida fucina; dell’incudina sonore l’importuno strepitar”;” My head seems to be in a fiery forge; the sound of the anvils deafens the ear.”).

The ostensibly central character of The Barber of Seville, namely the character of Figaro, is portrayed and sung magnificently by baritone Andrey Zhilikhovsky. The character of the Barber envelops the action of the opera like a quasi-narrator of sorts. This fascinating character reminded me of another famous character who performed that same function —namely, Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Mr. Zhilikhovsky delights throughout and conveys a myriad of moods. Particularly striking is Mr. Zhilikhovsky’s rich baritone voice as he sings of his many talents that make him a good barber, a good matchmaker, etc.  (“Largo al factotum della citta”; “Make way for the factotum of the city”).

Tenor Taylor Stayton as Count Almaviva had a very sensitive and moving tenor voice but seemed to lack some power and authority in his voice to portray the necessary ardor in his wooing of Rosina. However, Mr. Stayton was superlative in his inherent understanding of the comic complexities of his role and he settled well into the romantic aspect of his character as he sang joyously of his fortune in having won Rosina as the marriage contract is signed (“Ah, il piu lieto”).

Ms. Isabel Leonard sang in a captivating mezzo-soprano range as Rosina. Ms. Leonard had a vivacious and appealing presence throughout the proceedings.  Her comic timing as displayed in looks of puzzlement, bewilderment and confusion were a joy to behold. Particularly engaging was Ms. Leonard’s interpretation of Rosina’s cavatina: “Una voce poco fa”, “A voice a little while ago”.  Ms. Leonard’s voice thrilled by moving beautifully from the middle to the upper register.

Paolo Bordogna’s bass was very well suited to Rossini’s music.  Mr. Bordogna as the officious (yet continually fooled) Dr. Bartolo interpreted his part with the requisite mixture of authority and puzzlement. A standout aria was sung as he remained steadfast in his authority when Rosina tries to fool him: “A un dottor mella mia sorte;” “To a doctor of my class.”

The Barber of Seville — Photo: Scott Suchman

Soprano Alexandria Shiner as Berta sings an amusing aria of comedic disdain for her crazy employers that is brief but stands out as a small gem (‘Il vecchiotto cerca moglie”).

Bass Wei Wu as Don Basilio, who is Rosina’s conniving music teacher, acts his role to comic perfection. Mr. Wu’s highly theatrical and florid gestures fit perfectly into the Director’s conception of this production. Wu’s aria on gossip and calumny when he plans to discredit Count Almaviva by vicious gossip is a standout: “La calumnia e un venticello;” “Calumny is a little breeze.”

Baritone Christian Bowers as Fiorello and Matthew Pauli as Ambrogio fill their roles with the utmost capability and delight.

The main aspect that stays in the mind in this production is the constant movement of the characters. Ample credit must be given to the choreography by Rosa Mercedes.  

Set Designer Allen Moyer has designed an authentic-looking set showing a square in front of Bartolo’s house, a room in Bartolo’s house with four doors and a library in Bartolo’s home.

Costume Designer James Scott has designed expertly tailored costumes that are appropriate for the period.

Kudos to Director Peter Kazaras’s vision for this production of The Barber of Seville.  Mr. Kazaras combines the utmost respect for the music and the libretto while, concurrently, adding little details and “tongue-in-cheek” embellishments to his interpretation that keep this esteemed opera fresh for new generations.

Running Time: Three Hours including one 25-minute intermission

The Barber of Seville by the Washington National Opera plays through May 19, 2018, at the Kennedy Center Opera House – 2700 F Street, in Washington, DC. For tickets go Online.

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