OPERA: A charming ‘Barber’

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The Washington National Opera opened its 2009-10 season at the Kennedy Center Opera House with a fresh and charming production of Gioacchino Rossini’s durable comic war horse, “Il barbiere di Siviglia” (“The Barber of Seville”).

The opera concerns the misadventures of Figaro, its eponymous hero, who takes time off from tonsorial artistry to help Count Almaviva court the lovely Rosina. She’s the ward and bride-to-be of nasty old Doctor Bartolo, who is assisted by Rosina’s music teacher, Don Basilio. Predictable chaos ensues.

The WNO production is graced by the presence of perhaps the finest bel canto tenor of our times, Lawrence Brownlee, in the role of the Count. Washington audiences have come to love him via his appearances with the Washington Concert Opera at Lisner Auditorium.

Diminutive in size, Mr. Brownlee makes up for his lack of physical heft with a supple, luminous voice that can only be described as heavenly. While his instrument sounded less hefty in the Opera House than in Lisner, his impeccable phrasing and mind-blowing ornamentation came through loud and clear. His flawless delivery of Almaviva’s concluding aria caused the audience to erupt into one of the lengthiest outbursts of enthusiastic applause I can remember.

But let’s not forget the opera’s other major characters. Mezzo Silvia Tro Santafe was superb as a feisty Rosina. Blustery bass Donato DiStefano was a boffo buffo indeed as the villainous Bartolo. And bass-baritone Eric Owens sang a craftily oily Don Basilio, adding an amusing bit of casual kleptomania to his already unsavory character.

Of course, there’s Figaro himself, sung in this performance with great aplomb by baritone Simone Alberghini. His crisp, authoritative delivery of Figaro’s immortal opening salvo, “Largo al factotum” (roughly, “Make way for the coolest dude in this city”) convincingly set the stage for an evening of fun.

Kudos are in order for the WNO Orchestra under the baton of Michele Mariotti. Its performance of Rossini’s famous overture was unusually subtle and nuanced. And the maestro’s skill throughout in keeping the orchestra from overshadowing WNO’s bel canto cast was greatly appreciated.

David Gately directed the action with an airy touch, save for an inexplicable remake of Bartolo’s maidservant Berta (mezzo Cynthia Hanna) — usually Rosina’s pal — into a bizarrely schizophrenic mess. It seemed to throw the talented Miss Hanna off her game.

Saturday’s performance was simulcast to opera fans camped out at Washington Nationals Park. Stan Kasten, president of the Nationals, appeared onstage before the opera to greet both audiences. In an amusingly effective bit of cross promotion, the singers donned red Nats baseball caps during the curtain call.

During this opera’s long run, different cast members will sing some of the principal roles in some performances.

★★★½

WHAT: Washington National Opera: Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: 7 p.m. Sept. 14, 19; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 15, 16, 17; 2 p.m. Sept. 20

TICKETS AND INFORMATION: $50-300; 202/295-2400, or go to www.dc-opera.org

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