Opera San Antonio, The Barber of Seville by Rossini
Top: Act II finale. Above: Andrew Owens (Almaviva), Luis Ledesma (Figaro), Sarah Coburn (Rosina). Below: Ashraf Sewailam (Basilio) and Jake Gardner (Bartolo).
Production photos by Marty Sohl
No need to split hairs – this Barber satisfies
May 7, 2017
Opera is sorta like baseball. A
home-run slugger or two can give the
fans some transitory thrills, but the
team needs strength in every other
position, all the way down to the
short-relief pitchers and the batboys,
to make it to the World Series.
Opera San Antonio’s production of
Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of
Seville, which opened May 6 in the
Tobin Center, was the work of a World
Series contender. The special
satisfaction in this production was the
consistently high level of craft and
teamwork in every aspect of the show.
Sure, there were a few minor
shortcomings, but on the whole this
was the most fully realized and most
thoroughly delightful Barber in my
experience – which, by the way, goes
back to a legendary 1971 Lyric Opera
of Chicago production whose cast was
led by Marilyn Horne, Hermann Prey
and Spiro Malas.
The Barber of Seville is based on the
first of Pierre Beaumarchais’s three
“Figaro” plays, politically dangerous
comedies dealing with the rapidly
changing norms for relationships
between nobles and commoners in
the decades surrounding the French
Revolution. In Barber, Count
Almaviva must disguise himself (and
his name) in order to woo the
bourgeois heiress Rosina, ward of the
greedy Dr. Bartolo, who wants to get
his hands on her money by marrying
her. The ruse is necesary because
Almaviva could have been stripped of his noble status had his dalliance with a commoner become known. Figaro, the lower-class barber and fixer, aids Almaviva in this quest. (In the second play, The Marriage of Figaro, Almaviva, now married to Rosina, sets his sights even lower on the social scale by putting the munch on Figaro’s betrothed, the servant Susanna. The final play, The Guilty Mother, is set after the Revolution, and relationships are complicated by children conceived outside of marriage.)
The most obvious virtue of this production was the splendid Rosina of soprano Sarah Coburn. (The role was originally written for a contralto, but it is commonly sung nowadays by a soprano or mezzo-soprano.) Her instrument was warm and plush, gleaming on top yet also capable of majestically resonant pedal tones. She executed the role’s florid runs with an agility and click-stop accuracy that fell only a trifle short of the Horne standard, and her acting was exemplary. Her Rosina was a perfectly gauged comedic heroine, at once tough and pliant, in the mold of a Myrna Loy or Claudette Colbert.
Baritone Luis Ledesma was not the most charismatic Figaro I’ve seen, but his singing was stylish, alert, and amply powered. Tenor Andrew Owens’s Almaviva was limpid, youthful and unfailingly lovely. Jake Gardner’s Bartolo was a classic buffo bass, with a voice not only big but also refined, and superb in rhythm and diction. Bass Ashraf Sewailam was a powerhouse Don Basilio, the music teacher and slander-meister. Berta, the maid, has only one significant number, but it was a show-stopper as sung by soprano Claudia Chapa, who earned a thunderous ovation. Taking the non-singing role of the servant Ambrogio was Andrew Thornton, one of San Antonio’s best actors.
Conductor Vlad Iftinca got crisp, polished playing from the San Antonio Symphony and kept the complicated ensemble numbers flowing with machine-tooled precision. Contributing immensely to the production’s musical success were Caren Levine’s lively, snappy harpsichord accompaniments to the recitatives.
E. Loren Meeker’s stage direction was a veritable gusher of imaginative, comedically astute details, without resort to burlesque clichés. As in Jacques Tati’s wonderful film Playtime, there was too much to absorb in one viewing, but it would be beastly to complain about that.
John Conklin’s sets, designed originally for Glimmerglass Opera, ideally suited the lithe, fleet lyricism of the music. Fairly narrow set pieces, representing the houses of Seville or various rooms in Dr. Bartolo’s house, rolled on and off quickly as needed, without delays for scene changes.
It would be nice, of course, to see at least a partial return to the innovative, ambitious programming that marked Opera San Antonio’s debut 2014-15 season under founding artistic director Tobias Picker and that fell victim to financial realities. Meanwhile, even so familiar a work as The Barber of Seville can seem fresh and vital if it’s staged with total commitment and attention to detail, as this production was. Let’s hope the company’s current artistic (and general) director, Enrique Carreón-Robledo, can keep ‘em coming.