Event Review: Florida Grand Opera’s The Barber of Seville a perfect balance of comedy and voice

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The Florida Grand Opera (FGO) is celebrating its 75th year of operation, and for their 74th season they’ve opened with a spirited and revamped rendition of Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, a textbook example of the opera buffa and one of the most beloved and recognized works in the world. You might not know the plot; you might not know what it was based on, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t recognize the “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro” refrain from the “Largo al factotum della città” aria that introduces the barber and all-around jerk-of-all-trades.

Taking the action away from 18th century Spain and onto a 1940s movie set of, director Dennis Garnhum has made an impressive and indelible FGO debut. With the superb young conductor Ramón Tebar at the helm of the orchestra, this production took a gamble with the team and modernization of the well-known oeuvre. If last season’s opener, Madama Butterfly, was a loud bang, The Barber of Seville is the warehouse filled with the leftover dynamite lit up at once. While some liberties were taken with the libretto and score – liberties that purists will find irreconcilable – this production shows the FGO’s commitment to developing and nurturing opera for the next generation of theatergoers and lovers. More on that later.

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After filling the Arsht Center on a typical rainy Miami night, a representative from the FGO’s Artistic Administration (Philip Pierce, if my memory serves me right) addressed the crowd before the curtains were raised with a short speech paralleling Pierre Beaumarchais’ source work (Le Barbier de Séville ou la Précaution inutile), Rossini’s libretto and their catalytic relation to the Age of Enlightenment with the indomitable will and persevering attitude of France and the French in the hours following the devastating terror attacks in Paris. The evening’s performance was dedicated to the ideals that have made the French who they are: liberté, égalité, fraternité. The orchestra followed with a respectful rendition of “La Marseillaise.”

The fantastic and richly produced set by Allan Stichbury mimicked a contract studio of the ’40s. There was depth and pragmatism in it. One of the key reasons for the production’s success is the relative ease in which the large cast of stars and extras were able to maneuver, especially during choreographed settings that relied on a fluidity usually found in physical comedy and pantomime. Purists might not like too much choreography in their operatic works, but, for this adaptation of The Barber, it helped to propel the new plot visuals along. Versatile and muscular, this set was well-plotted.

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Making their FGO debuts were mezzo-soprano Megan Marino as Rosina, tenor Andrew Owens as Count Almaviva and baritone David Pershall as Figaro. They were joined by FGO veteran bass-baritone Kevin Short as Dr. Bartolo. As the lead cast, I can’t think of a better recruitment of talent to bring these versions of the characters to life.

Marino was impressive and convincing as the coveted Rosina, a contract employee of Dr. Bartolo’s film studio and the object of his jealous and ill-tempered affections and the pure romantic love of Count Almaviva. She did a splendid job with her vocal work and acted the dueling facades of her character expertly between her two suitors. Owens’ Almaviva was remarkably on point as a slightly naive but determined lover. Initially announced as ill, Owens soldiered through and delivered a fine and nuanced performance that he can be proud of. If anything, it made his sequence as the replacement piano teacher an organically fluid and mesmerizing piece of theater.

Pershall’s Figaro was perfect. With the right amount of picaresque intent and devil-may-care attitude, he played his role effectively as liaison between the players in the amorous triangle. His introductory aria, the instantly recognizable “Largo al factotum della città” was performed with aplomb and proved his strongest on-stage moment. I particularly enjoyed his playful strolling about the stage on a kid’s scooter. Pershall held his own on the duets, even if his register was slightly below that of his companions; nothing about it was significant enough to detract from the enjoyment of the singing.

Kevin Short’s Dr. Bartolo was also perfect. Short might perform in very serious and somber works, but the man has a talent for comedy. His performance — a carefully crafted balancing act of deep and brooding temper, extremist jealousy, and rapid-fire deliveries — was perfectly on point. I can only think of describing his presence the same way Kurosawa poetically revered Toshiro Mifune’s controlled range and superior ability to convey emotions in less film than his contemporaries. Short is so good that I refuse to see anyone else in this role – no disrespect meant to bass Kevin Glavin, who performs the role in the second cast. While I have not seen him perform this opera, Glavin is a veteran of the stage and an extremely capable casting for this character, but Short raises the bar to an insurmountable zenith.

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The large background cast did admirably as film extras that continuously and fastidiously alternated between a production of a war epic, civvies and toreador outfits. They were busy, but never intrusive. Like their acting, they sang their parts at a solid register, allowing the main actors a discerned arena to shine in. Their work deserves recognition. Smaller parts were perfectly executed by Nicholas Ward, Eliza Bonet, Edgar Miguel Abréu and Zachary Elmassian – the last three of whom we’ll see again in the remaining productions of the season.
To ear, it seemed like some parts were cut short in favor of developing plot via choreography and instrumentals. While this might put this particular rendition more in line with a filmed comedic production, it didn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the work. Knowing ahead of time that the story was set in the 1940s and not the 18th century put my reasonable expectations under the check of magical suspension of disbelief.

Will this production, as it stands, stand the test of time? I don’t know. Divination is not my thing, but I do know that this work, as presented and with the likable and ideally assembled cast, is an excellent calling card to bring new fans to the opera house. As a lighthearted and visually arresting opera (and one of the few in which no one dies), the FGO’s presentation of The Barber of Seville, is a trip to the theater that the entire family will enjoy.

All photos by Brittany Mazzurco Muscato, with permission from the Florida Grand Opera.

Florida Grand Opera presents Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville through Saturday, November 21 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, and on December 3 and 5 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. For ticket information and times, call 305-949-6722 and visit arshtcenter.org or call 954-462-0222 and visit browardcenter.org.

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Abel Folgar

Scoundrel, bon vivant, rocanrolero, fútbol cretin... giving into flights of poesy whenever the whiskey's free. Caracas, VZ/Miami, FL. Follow me on Twitter @abelf77.

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