Published in Gay and Lesbian Times October 04, 2002
Rossini was true to Beuamarchais, and Comic Opera is true to Rossini (in one way, at least). The French dramatist Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais wrote “The Barber of Seville,” in 1775 to satirize the follies and foibles of the upper class. The play was distinguished by its clever dialogue and intricate plot. When Rossini composed his adaptation in 1815, he made an assiduous attempt to maintain the tone and style, as well as many of the words (libretto by Cesare Sterbini) of the original dramatist. Rossini also stipulated that, if the opera was to be performed in a language other than Italian, the recitatives should be delivered as “spoken dialogue.” Now, nearly a century later, the San Diego Comic Opera (soon to be renamed Lyric Opera San Diego) is respecting the composer’s wishes (though the English language translator, Mona Katz, is not given a Bio in the program).
Rossini was compassionate in his desire for audiences to understand his work. Modern theatergoers (more likely than opera buffs) may appreciate the comprehensible text and naturalistic absence of recitative. But clearly, a good deal is lost in the translation. The text is updated unnecessarily, with supposedly humorous topical references such as macaroni and cheese, the Vice Squad, political correctness (“don’t ask, don’t tell’) and crass vernacular (“Oh my Lord, we’re screwed”). For my money, that’s pandering to (and not trusting) the audience; it also smacks of being less than respectful of the composer’s (and playwright’s) original. Nonetheless, the music remains intact, and with guest conductor Martin Wright at the helm, the score is well served, although the acoustics and orchestral balance were less than ideal on opening night at the Casa del Prado Theater in Balboa Park.
The principals are engaging, if not show-stopping, but in combination their voices are delightful, and the chorus provides potent support. Chris Thompson is endearing as the wily barber Figaro, who masterminds the meeting and mating of Rosina and the lovelorn Count Almaviva. As Rosina, Laura Portune has a sweet voice, particularly in the piano sections. As the Count, Ralph Ryan is vocally weak, but he’s amusing and attractive in his various disguises (despite a non-sticking moustache and oft-falling lorgnettes on opening night). As Dr. Bartolo, Scott Sikon is especially nimble in those rapid-fire repetitions. Walter Du Melle’s basso Don Basilio is more silly and less droll than he could be.
Silly is the operative word here. Director J. Sherwood Montgomery paints in very broad strokes, which, along with the fatuous translation, undermines the cleverness and encourages excessive stage business and over-acting. Pam Stompoly’s costumes and makeup capture a range of colorful styles, but Rosina’s full-dress flamenco attire seems wildly out of place for an at-home outfit. The lighting was uneven and unpredictable at the opener.
But if you go for sheer amusement, and for sole enjoyment of the glorious music, you won’t be disappointed. The score transcends all, and the devious trickster, Figaro, is eternally irresistible. The stodgy priggishness of the Doctor and mercenary groveling of the music teacher are offset by the innocence of the lovers and their ultimate union and joy. Love conquers all once again, even if the message is conveyed by means of every shtick in the book.
“The Barber of Seville” continues through October 6, at the Casa del Prado in Balboa Park 619-239-8836.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.