Friday, August 22, 2003

Figaro, everyone’s favorite Barber of Seville, returned to the Washington area last week as the Wolf Trap Opera Company mounted its all-too-brief production of Gioacchino Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” at the Filene Center.

This sprightly “Barber” was just the antidote for what has proved to be an oppressively steamy August. Too bad the Wolf Trap Opera doesn’t put on a few more performances of its late summer operas, but it’s probably a matter of money, with things such as the Boston Pops’ treacly-titled “Baby Boomer Bash” and the upcoming Broadway retread “Thoroughly Modern Millie” likely to pull in more bucks in this tenaciously slow economy.

Based on a comedy by the radical French dramatist Beaumarchais, Rossini’s most popular opera was composed at a breakneck pace between December 1815 and February 1816 when the composer was just 23. Its Rome opening was mercilessly razzed, partially at the instigation of another composer’s partisans. The second performance, however, was a great success, and the opera has remained firmly in the repertoire ever since. Even people who aren’t opera fans will recognize Rossini’s hit tunes as the driving force behind many a Warner Brothers cartoon frenzy.

Combining elements of social satire with bits of commedia dell’arte, “Barber’s” flimsy plot involves a commoner named Figaro who is always able to outwit his betters. Handsome Count Almaviva is attracted to Rosina, the beautiful young ward of the old Dr. Bartolo. Bartolo, abetted by Rosina’s oily music teacher, Don Basilio, has decided to marry Rosina himself, but Almaviva has other ideas. In cahoots with Figaro, the wily Barber of Seville and jack of all trades, the Count impersonates a poor student named “Lindoro,” employing various disguises to outwit a determined Bartolo and get hitched to Rosina in place of the aging doc.

This Wolf Trap production imported a light and airy, slightly Moorish set from the City Opera of New York. It felt and looked right at home on a sultry Northern Virginia summer evening. And it was utilitarian, too. Just a quick spin of the two-story buildings, and the opera’s rapid scene changes were efficiently accomplished.

The music — always a treat — sparkled under the baton of Dean Williamson. The young, nattily-costumed singers had great fun with their parts under the tasteful direction of Sam Helfrich, and the microphone pickups, always a challenge at the Filene Center, were generally spot-on. What more could you want, aside from a lavish Wolf Trap picnic dinner complete with silverware, crystal and a fine bottle of non-Gallic wine?

As Figaro, baritone Aaron Judisch proved to be a traditionalist. His Barber was a manly man with an eye for the ladies and an even greater yen for a pocketful of gold. His voice was solid and well-assured, and he sang Figaro’s famous aria “Largo al factotum della citta” with an ironically contained self-confidence. While his interpretation provided nothing particularly new, his Figaro was nicely sung and added real heft to the evening’s ensembles.

As Figaro’s latest employer, Count Almaviva, tenor Nicholas Phan was a bit restrained, with his voice seemingly better-suited to chamber opera than to the broad expanse of the Filene Center’s huge outdoor amphitheater. Nonetheless, he came into his own when impersonating the sickeningly ingratiating Don Alonso in Act II, with his voice gaining in confidence and richness as the act progressed.

In the small role of Berta the maid, mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock had a brief moment to shine in her Act II aria, and she made the most of it. On the male side of the equation, as the broadly comic toady Basilio, deep-voiced beanpole bass Matt Boehler was most amusing as he unself-consciously added the correct dash of physical comedy to his entrances and exits.

And as the villainous Dr. Bartolo, bass-baritone Matthew Burns was a real comic revelation. Bartolo is all too often played as a doddering old man, a kind of rich simpleton. Mr. Burns, however, imbued him with a capering spryness. His Bartolo was quick of mind, fleet of foot and could capably navigate Rossini’s difficult patter songs without a hint of effort.

As an added nifty touch, he would occasionally mock his ward, Rosina, with a perfectly executed falsetto, exactly catching her intonation. It’s always nice to see a surprising twist on a hackneyed stock role, and that’s exactly what audiences got from Mr. Burns.

But perhaps most impressive of all was soprano Sarah Coburn in the role of Rosina. Here’s a young lady we’d really like to see and hear again. As she attacked and defeated Rossini’s scandalously difficult vocal passages in Act I, her light, athletic voice conjured up images of a young gymnast performing a dance routine.

She was particularly brilliant in her opening aria, “Una voce poco fa,” which soars and swoops with occasional detours for fancy figures. She also proved to be a fine comic actress, bringing a saucily feminist touch to a role that is often played with more propriety and ladylike restraint.

Above all, she was having fun. She is a talent to watch.



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