Posts Tagged ‘Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia’

The Theatro Municipal de São Paulo seemed to have regained its footing, especially after Roberto Minczuk was appointed general musical director, when a press release informed that there would not be an announcement of this year’s season due to uncertain funding. Therefore, the management has decided to play safe and announce each item in the opera season as soon as the money to pay for it is guaranteed.

Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia is not my favorite opera, rather the opposite. And yet I couldn’t help supporting a company that is really struggling to offer its very best. I could overhear today a 20-year-old girl explaining her friend that since she saw Tosca in the Theatro Municipal she has become a subscriber and has insisted that her friends come along. “At first they are convinced it’s going to be boring, but when they’re here, they realize it is a experience like nothing else”. The taxpayers in the state of São Paulo can rest assured: their money is here – if almost nowhere else – being put to good use.
Maestro Minczuk’s ability to make the best of the forces available is a lesson to every conductor. On every occasion I see him  in São Paulo, I cannot cease to marvel at how he finds the exact balance between doing justice to the score and respecting his musicians’ limitations. This evening, for instance, Mr. Minczuk took profit of the house band’s lean orchestral sound to produce a quicksilvery aural picture  that proved to be ideal to ensure clarity in Rossinian ensembles. Also, as his strings are not the nec plus ultra in passagework, he made sure that his beat was buoyant but not hectic. That also helped his singers to sound “happy” while dealing with impossibly difficult coloratura. I can only imagine that this must be helpful when you’re singing an opera buffa.
Luisa Francesconi has all the elements of a perfect Rosina: the tone is distinctively fruity, her low register is firm and bright, the passaggio is 100% smooth, she masters the art of mezza voce, her diction is crystalline, her fioriture are clear and she is charming and acts with naturalness. At this point in her career, her extreme high notes can have a touch of vinegar, but once the voice is warm one hardly notices that. Her Almaviva was American tenor Jack Swanson, whose dulcet tenor can acquire a pronounced nasality when things turn high and fast. He too gained in strength during the performance and wowed the audience with the rarely sung Cessa di più resistere in the end of the opera. Michel de Souza offered a Mozartian Figaro à la Hermann Prey, whose congeniality he evokes too. His baritone has a hint of throatiness that is not really bothersome, but his vowels are more Brazilian than Italian. That is a problem this evening’s Doctor Bartolo, Savio Sperandio, has as well. He made a fair stab at the role, dealing with the patter commendably. I was going to say that there were moments when his voice was all over the place, but that is something I could say of most Bartolos I saw on stage. Carlos Eduardo Marcos was a light, firm-toned Basílio, and Vítor Mascarenhas showed a promising baritone in the small role of Fiorello.
Cleber Papa’s staging brings nothing new to Rossini’s most performed comedy, but what he offered was solid and dependable. The slapstick approach was perfectly timed, every singer was comfortable on stage and their acting was so well integrated that one couldn’t help but calling them all good actors. The sets seemed to have been bought in the supermarket shelf for “Productions of The Barber of Seville”, but costumes were a bit inconsistent. I don’t understand why Rosina was made to look unattractive in unbecoming gowns and wigs.



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In his 2005 production for the New National Theatre, Josef E. Köpplinger seems to have tried to find the Spanish note missing in most stagings of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia – if his “Spanish” touch seems to have been borrowed from Pedro Almodóvar films (well, the “General Audiences” version of an Almodóvar film – the risqué touch reduced to Berta doubling as a brothel’s procurer or something of the kind), it all very much looks like the Austrian view of how Spain is supposed to be – there is an excess of color, decay, edge and ebullience. Heidrun Schmelzer’s revolving sets show Don Bartolo’s house both outside (when it looks realistic, albeit more Cuban than Spanish) and inside (think of a color, it is there). Extras are extremely busy and sometimes you have to make an effort to focus on the main story. As usual in the NNT, characters behave like puppets and you leave the theatre with no new thoughts about the libretto. I know, The Barber from Seville is no Die Frau ohne Schatten, but, well, they could have at least tried…

Some conductors decide how a performance should be before they met the orchestra they are going to conduct. In Carlo Montanaro’s mind, this should be a knockout of a performance – fast tempi, well-defined rhythms in the context of an a tempo-approach, dazzling virtuoso quality from all musicians. The audience heard something an else – the musicians desperately trying to cope with the fast beat, lacking lightness and buoyancy, ensembles very close to disintegrate (the long finale to act I was actually quite messy) and singers without leeway to build a performance. No-one could call this performance boring – it was exciting in a nervous, charmless way. You just need to listen to Claudio Abbado’s old recording for DG to see that it is worth while slowing down for some comfort – if it is not fun for the musicians, it will certainly not be for the audience.

Roxana Constantinescu’s grainy and smoky mezzo does not always suggest youth and her toying with soprano options are often not really beguiling, but she has very fluent coloratura, easy high notes and rarely sounds mechanical. Her Rosina is rather faceless, but one has never the impression that she is not trying to say something. Maybe in other circumstances. Luciano Botelho too has very clear divisions and a warm, pleasant tenor, but I could bet that he was not in a good voice day; his high register lacked brightness and sounded invariably bottled up and dry. In a role like the Count Almaviva, this is a non negligible shortcoming. I have little hope in Dalibor Jenis’s Figaro, but this was actually the best performance I have ever seen from him. Free from the burden of sounding like a Verdi baritone, he sounded simply more focused and spontaneous. He found no problem in high notes and he is more comfortable with fioriture than most. His unexaggerated interpretation is refreshing and his Italian is vivid enough. He is not terribly funny, though – and I missed a more “classical” poise in his singing. After all, this is technically bel canto repertoire . Bruno Praticò is the kind of buffo whose singing is more a matter of acting with the voice than actually producing flowing and musical phrasing. If his performance is all about comedy effects, he does it with animation and, if someone was actually having a good time on stage, this was him. Hidekazu Tsumaya, as always, was a reliable Don Basilio.

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The Hamburgishe Staatsoper’s production of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia (a revival from the 1976 Deflo/Frigerio staging) has become today something like the generic version of Barbiere di Siviglia. You have seen bits of that kind of stage direction, of those sets, of those costumes, of the physical comedy touches in some Barbiere somewhere at some point. I am unable to tell how original the whole thing was in 1976, but I will not deny that it has some sort of outdated charm, especially if you want to take someone to the opera for the first time in their lives.  The two children seated next to me, for example, were having the time of their life (of course, we are talking about German children).

Alexander Winterson’s conducting had the right degree of animation, forward movement, lightness and theatricality. At first, one feels that a bit more volume would make the experience more vivid, but later it became clear that this was probably a decision to accommodate some very light voices in the cast. Sometimes, things were a bit untidy in ensembles and less fast tempi could have done the trick.

Silvia Tro Santafé’s tangy mezzo soprano sounds too formidable for Rosina. It is a sizeable, colourful voice and flexible enough (although intonation in a couple of runs were a bit approximative) for Rossini’s difficult coloratura demands. Her method involves an intrinsical use of chest voice that, although generally well knit to upper parts of her range, seems more suitable to masculine roles. Lawrence Brownlee’s light and high tenor is more velvety than most tenorini’s and his ease with fioriture is very commendable. It is still a small voice that could use with a bit more tone colouring to make a difference, especially for someone whose short height makes his casting in leading roles a bit difficult. Wilhelm Schinghammer’s resonant bass is properly cast for Basilio, but his diction could be clear. In this aspect, the casting of Renato Girolami as Bartolo somehow exposes the whole cast. Of course, he has the advantage of singing his own language – in any case, his diction is remarkably crystalline. His voice is forceful if a bit raw and, as almost every buffo since immemorial times, his vocal production is very irregular, as if he saved his full harmonics only for the key moments. All in all, this is a singer immerse in the right tradition of Italian comedy. Unfortunately, Oleg Romashyn was clearly below the leves of his colleagues – and he took the opera’s title role. His pronunciation of Italian language is unacceptably sketchy – overdark vowels largely to blame – and he tended to be drowned by the (light) orchestra too often for comfort. He has some rich top notes and commendable flexibility – but this is simply not the right voice for this repertoire.

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I have to confess I was first unimpressed by Bartlett Sher’s production of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia for the Met – I thought that there was too much cuteness going on and that the sceneries did not work very well for those who were seated in the upper levels of the theatre. Maybe because my seat was very close to the stage this time, I finally warmed up to its all-for-laughs charm, especially when the level of acting was as good as seen today. The music values were better preserved this time. After a rather unclear overture, Frédéric Chaslin showed excellent control over the complex ensembles and led his soloists with helpful and attentive conducting. However, the 1,000,000.00 dollar-question will always be – how tonight’s singers compare with a cast that I myself called to be of “golden age”-quality last year?

I won’t lie – Elina Garanca cannot compete with Joyce DiDonato’s extraordinary flexibility and technical abandon, but she proves to be a worthy successor in any other aspect. Her warm and creamy (and fuller) mezzo-soprano is always pleasant in the ear, she has a solid technique for the passagework, extraordinary ease with high notes, very good Italian and is also capable of producing exquisite piano singing when necessary, not to mention that she phrases stylishly. She also possesses excellent comedy timing and a most graceful stage presence. Although DiDonato was an engaging Rosina, I believe Garanca understood that her character is a Spanish girl and offered the kind of natural sexiness typical of Mediterranean women that has nothing to do with vulgarity .

The comparison between José Manual Zapata and Juan Diego Flórez is even more unfavourable in what regards technical finish. While the Peruvian is impressively accurate in passagework (let’s not forget he would sing Cessa di più resistere without any hint of difficulty) and commands in alts as few tenors these days, the Spaniard does only justice to his runs and often lacks support both in extreme low and top notes. His trump card is the natural beauty of his voice and his good taste. While Flórez cut a more Romantic figure last year, Zapata finally convinced the audience with his irresistible sense of humor and vitality in spite of his absence of physique du rôle.

There is no doubt about Franco Vassallo’s exceptional vocalism. His baritone sails through the tessitura from bottom to top notes with impressive confidence and his adeptness with fioriture is truly impressive. He is also a funny guy entirely at ease in such a showman’s part. However, I can’t help missing Peter Mattei’s intelligent and hilarious performance, far richer in detail than Vassallo’s. If the Italian baritone displays more flamboyant vocalism, Mattei’s singing was similarly accomplished and satisfying.

Replacing an ailing Maurizio Muraro, Paul Plishka proved he still has the energy of a man half his age. I was particularly impressed by the way he mingled in such finely knit teamwork, which is the hallmark of this production, and interacted with his stage partners. His voice is still firm and spacious (actually, he was in very good voice), but the patter of his big aria will always be a test for anyone born outside Italy. Ruggero Raimondi also showed some rusty edges in the part of Don Basilio, but this singer’s amazing presence, forceful voice and dramatic intelligence never lets the audience down. I finally must point out that Jennifer Check’s exquisitely crafted account of Berta’s aria would be a serious threat to the sale of ice-cream in any opera house in the days of Rossini.

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