Reviewed by James Karas
The Barber of Seville, the Canadian Opera Company’s chestnut offering for its spring season, paired with Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung, is disappointing. The singing is uneven and Joan Font’s production is misguided.
When the curtain opens on what should be a square in Seville, we see a large beige screen on our left and a large black screen on our right. There is almost nothing else on the stage. A man waving a bottle staggers around and a woman with a hairdo that looks like the tusk of a rhinoceros is seated on a bench. I figure that they are the town drunk and bag lady. We will see them a number of times without being any the wiser about what they are doing in the opera. One conclusion is that our well-off, heroine Rosina is living on the wrong side of the tracks.
Fiorello (Iain MacNeill) and his crooners arrive to serenade Rosina (Cecelia Hall) on behalf of Count Almaviva (Alek Shrader). The drunk and the bag lady stick around and the early risers of Seville mill around the square. Eventually light is shone on the black screen and there is an opening where Rosina appears. This is supposed to be the balcony.
The scene switches to the interior of Rosina’s house and, like the square and perhaps like the current Spanish economy, it has seen better days. There is very little furniture except for a grand piano the size of a boat and a balcony that looks like scaffolding from which to paint the house. This is depressing.
Director Joan Font and Costume and Set Designer Joan Guillén have a vision of The Barber as taking place in untraditional surroundings that, unfortunately, add nothing to the opera.
Font believes in having many people milling around for no apparent reason. Some of them move robotically, others are old and have nothing to do but the stage is almost never empty of extras that have no apparent business being where they are. Is this a comment, again, on the current high unemployment numbers in Spain and people are kept around even if there is nothing for them to do?
Font’s idiosyncratic production received little help from the uneven singing. The performance that I saw (May 13) had several cast changes. Baritone Clarence Frazer replaced Joshua Hopkins as Figaro. Frazer has a light baritone voice and did reasonably well in the role. He was uncertain of his moves as in “Largo al factotum” where he should establish his assertiveness and energy but looked rather uncomfortable instead.
Tenor Alek Shrader was a disappointing Count Almaviva. His voice was strained where it should have been mellifluously lyrical and flat where it should have soared. He was clearly not at his best.
Mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall was a vivacious and attractive Rosina. She did a good job delivering her signature cavatina “Una voce poco fa” and her performance was one of the most satisfactory of the evening.
Baritone Renato Girolami sang well as the foolish Doctor Bartolo and showed a fine comic sense for the role. Bass Robert Gleadow as the music teacher Don Basilio has a deep and impressive voice combined with comic turns and he did well especially in his character’s signature aria “La Calumnia.”
The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra under the baton of Rory Macdonald did not suffer from any of the issues that diminished one’s enjoyment of the opera. They were splendid.
From the drab sets to the tiresome appearance of people in scenes where they have no business to the uneven singing, this was not a Barber of Seville to remember with unalloyed pleasure.
The Barber of Seville by Giacomo Rossini with libretto by Cesare Sterbini opened on April 17 and will be performed twelve times until May 22, 2015 on various dates at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671. www.coc.ca