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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

The Barber of Seville — Opera Philadelphia

untitled (105)Michael Shell’s production of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” for Opera Philadelphia is an intricately crafted mélange in every conceivable way.

The title character, Figaro, enters on a contemporary bicycle while dressed in an 18th century combination of coat, blouson, and breeches. That is just the beginning of costumer Amanda Seymour’s catalog of fashion variations that span every era and go from being elegant to clownish.

The romantic lead, Count Almaviva is appareled like a chic 21st century jet setter that can get past the bouncer, and the line of the poshest, most exclusive club. Shell has him pose next to big backlit bus-shelter sized poster than features Almaviva on the cover of a magazine bearing the headline, “Quien esta el conte Almaviva?” (Who is Count Almaviva?).

The band Almaviva hires to help him serenade the infatuation he regards as his destined love, Rosina, wears matching white costumes that shriek “classical Spain,” with a touch of Mexican mariachi tossed in, while others in the chorus appear as if they’re archetypes from commedia dell’arte. Their number includes a woman who must stand close to 10-feet-tall on stilts that account for six of the feet.

Sean Plumb’s neatly styled Fiorello sports the modern clothes of a young man about town — He could pass for a hipster who tastefully avoids the facial hair and tattoos that mark that breed. — while the maid, Berta, wears a tight-fitting hot pink dress with yellow polka dots that is so snug, soprano Katrina Thurman has to shuffle or walk in mincing steps. She looks like a reed thin flamenca in libido overdrive.

This mix of styles and looks extends to the performance of Rossini’s opera.

I would bet that in the entire history of opera, Doctor Bartolo, comic because of his scheming and conniving while having the reputation of a learned and honorable gentleman, has never been portrayed as choreographically frantic as Kevin Burdette plays him. Rather than keeping Rosina’s lascivious and spiteful guardian a staid if wily bastion of conventional respectability, Shell has Burdette rocking and wriggling on several occasions. The character’s a veritable Elvis, and a much different kind of comedian than the outsmarted impediment to true love you see in most “Barbers of Seville.”

The amazing thing is through all the carnival razzmatazz, unexpected dancing, bright Andalusian designs mingling with the earth tones of Southern Spain, and wanton juxtaposition of period in characterization and wardrobe, Gioachino Rossini’s music is given primary focus in both the orchestrations and the singers’ vocal lines.

In fact, with the exception of Doctor Bartolo’s hip thrusts, most of the arias, and even the recitative, in Shell’s production are done with fidelity in a traditional, and possibly old-fashioned, stand-and-deliver mode that has the performer facing the Academy of Music audience and singing directly to it.

How’s that for production irony?

The result is as mixed as the bold design motifs and constant animation Shell prescribes.

You can’t help but be regularly, if not continually, amused by this “Barber of Seville” with its penchant for theatrical élan and random bits of comic business that border at times on slapstick. That said, Shell’s stage is often too active or too crammed with curiosities for Beaumarchais’s story, adapted for Rossini’s opera by Cesare Sterbini, to establish a firm hold on the audience’s attention.

You are more entertained than engrossed. All is in such high dudgeon, the production becomes self-conscious and, perhaps, a bit pretentious, the unusual being practiced for the sake of being unusual. The perpetual motion and flock of sideshows keep you emotionally or sentimentally removed from Almaviva’s comic, but sincere, campaign to woo and wed Rosina or to giving any sympathetic thought to Rosina’s enthusiastic encouragement of Almaviva’s suit.

High spirits dominate to the extent you respond more to the color, brightness, and personality of the production than to Rosina and Almaviva’s  romance, Doctor Bartolo’s attempts to thwart his ward’s love, or Figaro’s ingenuity in devising how to bring all to a happy comic conclusion.

Shell’s production provides constant fun and lots to look at, but it treats the opera and its libretto superficially, even for a comedy, so delight, when generated, derives from happens in the corners instead of the more pertinent matters that unfold center stage.

Several of Shell’s bits are quite clever. In the opening serenade scene, Almaviva and Fiorello call for quiet until he decides to commence his bit to wake and court Rosina. All through this desired silence and in the midst of Almaviva’s aria, Fiorello is forced to subdue a well-meaning but anxious musician who only wants to add the crash of his cymbals to the cacophony made by the other musicians present.

When Count Almaviva is about to be arrested by what amounts to a corps of Keystone Kops in powder blue uniforms, he prevents his imminent collar by showing an officer his picture on the magazine cover. The policeman, realizing he is dealing with a powerful count that can end his career by instant caveat, relents. And quickly.

Berta’s sexpot of a floozy, Don Basilio appearing like a seedy grifter, Almaviva’s disguise as a young impoverished music teacher, Don Alonso, conveying the look and attitude of a San Francisco flower child of the 1970s, oversized striped mail pouch and all, are coy inventions that spark the right kind of silliness.

In a way, Shell has deconstructed “The Barber of Seville.”  Not  musically. In that department, he and conductor Corrado Rovaris re true to Rossini’s score. But in terms of showing the universality and ongoing nature of Beaumarchais’s, or Sterbini’s, story by representing its characters and settings in an unending variety of ways.

The purist will probably eschew Shell’s tinkering and be willing to forgo the laughs earned by pratfalls or the passing by of two nuns who blithely smoke cigarettes as they stroll through the streets of Seville.

Those purists may have a point. Shell’s production requires a wide berth as it sprawls across the Academy stage.  It can be distracting. Yet one aspect of “The Barber of Seville” is free of antics or a tone of being part of a circus.

That’s the singing. For all of Shell’s excesses, one overriding fact is the Opera Philadelphia cast sings gloriously and fulfills its roles with gusto in accordance with Shell’s vision.

One can complain about Shell’s concept, and his habit of seemingly throwing in every idea that ever came to his  mind. They can say Shell’s approach adds too much unnecessary baggage for Opera Philadelphia’s “Barber of Seville to bear.

Yet, Burdette’s Doctor Bartolo and Wayne Tigges’s Don Basilio, look as if they’re having a ball performing this opera, and never Rossini’s music is never compromised.

On the contrary, the cast sings Rossini’s work with fullness and with purpose.

Jonathan Beyer is a roguish, mischievous Figaro who delights in his many talents and stratagems and who has a knack for making his costume look like 18th century grunge.

Beyer looks handsome and capable in this outfit that includes an open-collared shirt and a loose fitting coat that give Figaro an air of sexiness. You immediately believe Beyer’s Figaro is a competent man who can finagle anything and bend any circumstance to his advantage. Or that of the patron that pays for his services.

Beyer sings Figaro’s famous “Largo al factotum,” a bit known to every Bugs Bunny fan as well as to opera lovers, with robust zest and outstanding brio. You want this character to do business on your behalf. You also know Beyer is a solid entertainer who will make Figaro fun to behold.

When Jennifer Holloway opens the casement window of Doctor Bartolo’s house and sings her initial notes as Rosina, she surprises, pleasantly, with the richness and expressiveness of her mezzo voice. As an actress and singer, Holloway constantly impresses and makes you happy when Rosina is involved in a scene.

Holloway is especially good at showing how perceptive and capable Rosina is as a conspirator with Almaviva and Figaro. She is always quick to notice the man she regards as her lover no matter what he calls himself, as Almaviva, to gull Bartolo, dons two disguises. One is as Lindoro, a soldier who claims the privilege in being billeted in Doctor Bartolo’s house while he is stationed in Seville. The other is the hippie Don Alonso, a music teacher Rosina recognizes through his Beatles-like mop of hair and outlandish hippie garb.

Taylor Stayton’s triple role as Almaviva becomes more of a challenge under a director like Shell who design each character — the Count, Lindoro, and Don Alonso — to be distinct and different. As Don Alonso, the actor has to change his voice so as not to be recognized by Bartolo as Lindoro, and Stayton is adept in the nasal whine opera singers often use for comic roles.

Stayton is archly naughty as Lindoro, who takes a lot of liberties in Doctor Bartolo’s presence. Being in Bartolo’s house not only allows him to make the old man jealous but to be near Figaro, who is employed by Bartolo, so he can rely on his cunning assistance.

Stayton seems to take particular pleasure in affecting the hippie Don Alonso, who comes to court Rosina is his clashing ensemble of paisley, flowers, and stripes. Don Alonso purports to take Don Basilio’s place as Rosina’s music teacher, and Stayton also has fun wielding the oversized lute Shell provides for him.

Kevin Burdette may be living a bass’s fantasy by having so much overt comedy to perform as Doctor Bartolo.

Bartolo, clever though he thinks he is, is the dupe of “The Barber of Seville,” but Burdette gets to act large throughout Shell’s production that invites exaggerated takes and consistent physicality.

Wayne Trigges also has fun as a particularly oily and manipulative Don Basilio, a duplicitous opportunist who stands to profit if he can help Bartolo to successfully carry out his plan to marry Rosina and take control of her inheritance before Almaviva, who Bartolo doesn’t realize is omnipresent, can solemnize his Rosina’s nuptials.

Katrina Thurman makes great use of her polka dot dress as Berta, who comes across as a hybrid of Carmen Miranda and Sofia Vergara.

Sean Plumb impresses with his turn as Fiorello, Almaviva’s righthand man until he enlists Figaro.

Shell’s designers deserve heaps of praise for their wit and creativity in executing the sets and costumes for this production.

Shoko Kambara’s set devilishly exaggerates the fabrics, tilework, and Moorish influence of Southern Spain in her colorful, geometrically oriented set that simultaneously recalls traditional Andalusian art, which is dependent on shapes because it cannot include images or human likenesses, and bold ’70s wallpaper.

Kambara realizes Shell’s vision by labelling settings to tell distinctly what they are, i.e. La Calle or La Casa. She has an unsettling neon pair of scissors flanking an open eye, Bunuel style, next to large red neon arrow that points to a basement where Figaro plies his trade as El Barbero de Seville. I was impressed with the way Kambara made Bartolo’s wall tiles look so busily animated, as was the Spanish custom, while presenting their abstract forms in the browns and tans of the dusty landscape around Seville. And note all of the colorful uses of the Andalusian chicken.

Amanda Seymour’s costumes are a phantasmagoric parade of period and style that led to a panoply of witty, unique clothing. Every stitch of her work exudes humor and adds to the cunning extravagance of the Opera Philadelphia production.

Whether being literal and traditional, with a touch of grunge, for Figaro, extending white pant legs with black pin stripes six feet to accommodate the sliltwalker’s act, pouring Berta into that polka dot number, coming up with the hippie drag for Almaviva as Don Alonso, creating a tawdry look for Don Basilio, and using  a simple but creepy short-sleeve shirt with a tie, held in place by tie pin, for Doctor Bartolo, Seymour provides deft design and good fun that moves this “Barber of Seville” in the right direction. She makes us eager to see the creation her next character might wear.

David Zimmerman is versatile in his role as hair and make-up designer. Driscoll Otto’s lighting design matched the tone of Shell’s direction.

Corrado Rovaris conducts the Opera Philadelphia audience with his typical aplomb. You enjoy Rossini’s music  from the familiar segments that enliven the overture to the ensemble pieces that marks the compromise that makes all happy ever after.

“The Barber of Seville,” produced by Opera Philadelphia, runs through Sunday, October 5 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Friday, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $239 to $19 and can be obtained by calling 215-893-1018 or by visiting www.operaphila.org.

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