The Canadian Opera Company premiered their new Barber of Seville tonight at the Four Season Centre, a colourful co-production with Houston Grand Opera, Opéra National de Bordeaux and Opera Australia directed by Joan Font, with set & costumes designed by Joan Guillén. Rossini’s comic masterpiece is well served in this interpretation relying heavily upon the Commedia dell’Arte origins of the story as a departure point for its theatricality. The stage-pictures they present are glorious, vibrant, throbbing with colour, and always seeming to probe the story for additional meanings.
Perhaps too many? Early on I thought we might be taking this Barber in a very serious direction –picking up clues dropped by Alek Shrader in his recent interview—when he challenged my assertion that the Count Almaviva is inevitably the good guy. Not necessarily. There’s at least a hint of something Marxist / materialist to problematize the relationships & the story, as this Count throws wads of money at everyone. His decision to pretend to be poor is framed within a fundamental question about authenticity that energizes many of the scenes, his ultimate success clouded slightly by his wealth. There are some subtle changes in the character dynamics, although that may be a result of the singers as much as the direction.
I expected Figaro to be the master – manipulator, always at the heart of the story, but that’s not what I saw tonight. Joshua Hopkins brings a nice bel canto voice and a likeable personality to the role of everyone’s favourite barber. Usually the Count is rescued incessantly by his tricky servant. That’s the essence of CdA, where servants outsmart their masters, young love triumphant.
Yet it was Shrader not Hopkins who was the central figure because of this slight change in the opera’s emphasis, both dramatically (including both wacky disguises) and vocally.
I’ll be interested to see how this plays in the Ensemble Studio performance coming May 15th, as I couldn’t tell if this was a function of the direction or the flamboyance of the performances. Font & Guillén make the opening serenade an over-the-top bit of farce with the wacky band who play in support, even as Shrader finds all sorts of additional notes to add to both the cavatina & the cabaletta.
From there on we seem to be sticking closely to the text as written.
The cast was strong throughout. Serena Malfi was a wonderfully sultry Rosina with a genuinely dark mezzo-soprano colour, and wonderful chemistry with Shrader. Renato Girolami’s Dr Bartolo was mostly good fun with a hint of genuine gravitas, especially in his domination of his ward. Robert Gleadow added another solid portrayal as Don Basilio, with a big solid sound. Ensemble members Iain MacNeil as Fiorello and Aviva Fortunata (the most luscious sounding Berta I’ve ever heard) more than held their own with the more experienced cast members.
I found myself recalling Els Comediants work on La Cenerentola four years ago, a production that I still recall as one of the best things I’ve ever seen from the COC. I can’t decide whether the issue is the match between their politics and the opera, or that they simply offered a more thorough treatment on that occasion. You may recall that just as on that occasion we were interrogating illusion & reality, examining our assumptions about what we see vs what is mere portrayal, so too this time. But I wonder, did they lose their nerve, or consider that what they were implying was a very dark reading? If Almaviva is only successful because of his money, a winner due to privilege rather than merit, is that really a happy ending at all? In contrast, the story of Cenerentola thoroughly reflects their critique of a materialist life, rewarding the one who sees life with greater enlightenment than her superficial & materialistic sisters. In this case perhaps Font & Guillén felt conflicted or even guilty that the rich boy wins the girl, that there’s some question as to whether he wins on merit. I’m not saying it’s not a fun production –because in the end they don’t tamper with Rossini—but there are some clear signals that they weren’t taking the text at face value, such as the final image, when the audience appears to be showered in play-money. Is this whole critique perhaps misplaced, especially when Figaro really comes to life for the first time when he sings “All’idea di quel metallo portentoso, onnipossente, un vulcano la mia mente
già comincia a diventar,” (or in other words, “at the idea of this metal, portentous, omnipotent, a volcano begins to erupt inside me”)…? There’s surely room for a critique, even a Marxist one, but there’s a limit. Is Almaviva one of the evil 1%? Beaumarchais (the playwright who created the Barber) wanted Figaro to be the smartest person in the room. Maybe it’s the bump on my head that i got the other night, but that’s not what i saw, however. Shrader’s Almaviva wins the girl on merit, even though he happens to be wealthy too. So perhaps you should ignore the money that showers down on you, and simply enjoy the glorious singing and the stylish playing of the COC Orchestra, led by Rory Macdonald.
The COC Barber of Seville continues for another dozen performances, closing May 22nd.