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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Mules in Horse Harness: Il Barbiere di Siviglia at Lyric Opera

Back when it was ticket-buying time in Nebraska, only friend J and his paramour, Wire Monkey Mother (WMM) took up the challenge to infiltrate the ranks of crusty old people take back the Lyric Opera House. On their behalf, I got the single ticket for WMM for La Traviata (STILL forthcoming) and two for Barbiere on the premise that they'd come in for a repeat of Carmen. Shit happened, and lots of it, for all of us, and the March trip for the House of Wombats was not to be.

Briefly, they entertained the idea of sending their street team in the second city (Wire!Monkey!Mother!Mother and Wire!Monkey!Mother!Uncle), but they're having staffing problems. In the end, my sister-in-law, A, kindly pretended that she'd rather go to the opera with me than go out drinking with a bunch of He-Men after their 8-hour (EIGHT!) fantasy baseball draft. spousal unit M also decided that he would come along, but he was getting up and walking out after the Fiiiigggaaaarroooo part. So we got our opera-fine butts to Panera for some dinner and hit the road. Hmmm, I've only just now realized that my main title could be construed as insulting to my companions from last night, but IT'S TOO LATE NOW!"

I'd gotten in a fair amount of reading of the Pompous Program before the lights went down, but somehow I missed the fact that this production was designed and directed for the stage (originally in 1989) by John Copley, who did quite the swell job with Carmen (my pathetically over-literal problems with "inside" and "outside" the bull ring aside). Despite having missed that tidbit, I was excited (and amused for personal reasons) to read the opening sentence of his blurb:
"For me, Rossini's Barbiere di Siviglia has been an amazing mixture of commedia del'arte [I did have qualms at that, as I've yet to recover from the rotten commedia-inspired Don Giovanni.—Ed.] and surreal happenings, especially in the two great finales. So when invited to do this production by Ardis Krainik and Bill Mason, I asked designer John Conklinto [sic] find a painter form [sic] the school of Surrealism on which to base our visual production. We toyed with Salvador Dali, who we found too heavy, but the glorious blue skies and white flowery clouds of René Magritte were a true inspiration."

The personal amusement comes not just from my own love for surrealist art (love it though I do), but from conversations with pal M. It would be hard to find two opera lovers who love opera in such different ways. If you've read even one of my opera low-downs, you know that I'm obsessed with design and visual presentation. Pal M has said that she likes to do everything but shut her eyes and just submerge herself in the music. She further says that visual art, in general, doesn't move her as music can, but she finds surrealist art pleasing because it's like a visual version of especially clever wordplay. So, yes, he had me at Magritte (despite the typos, which were unprecedentedly frequent in this Pompous Program: In a one-page look at the women who've played Rosina through the years, poor Henriette Sontag has an unwelcome third t foisted on her).

And now, in complete violation of the principles and preferences of pal M, I will go on at length about the visuals. Oh! But first, I have to go on about something that I only learned just now: This is not your father's Il Barbiere di Siviglia! It's freshly packed with pomposity by none other than the University of Chicago. I quote from the Sun-Times review by Andrew Patner:

"Editor Patrcia B. Brauner, a member of University of Chicago professor Philip Gosset's international musicological team, has used the widest availability to date of original manuscripts and the best set of editorial tools to clean up the score and its instrumental scoring. Her work takes us back to Rossini's intentions and preferences while giving the singers appropriate leeway -- a part of the operatic game in the composer's day -- rather than having them rely on encrusted, but unsupported, 'traditions'."

Well, you know how I feel about pomposity, so what could be better?

A GUITAR in the PIT could be better. During the overture, I was having fun watching conductor Donato Renzetti (not intended as a slight to Sir Andrew, whom I love, I just find different conducting styles fascinating, plus that overture is kind of the Iditarod of overtures). Suddenly I realized that there was a ripple of activity going through the first balcony as person after person lifted hir opera glasses and stared intently into the pit. What could this be?

I looked through mine like a good little sheep and saw the shocking instrument with mine own eyes. Yes, we should have all KNOWN that a guitar had to be somewhere. And conservative as Lyric patrons are, I'm sure that leaving the job to a musician would be preferable to trusting in a stage performer, but there was tacit disapproval of plopping him down in the middle of the REAL musicians, rather than establishing a cordon with custom police tape reading: CAUTION! NONORCHESTRAL INSTRUMENT.

Anyway, on to the real visuals. Pal M's distaste for them aside, it's really hard to imagine a better treatment of this buffstravaganza than to play up the nonstop wackiness without ever getting cute. Mission accomplished. The overture takes place while the set is blocked from view by a scrim lit from the front. In the center of the scrim is a circular collage centered around a bust of Rossini, which is then ringed with a guitar, a key, a shaving brush (the fuzzy end of which appears to be coming through the scrim at you in glorious 3-D), a barber's chair, and so on.

When the lights come up behind on stage and the scrim is flown out, we see the houses of Dr. Bartolo/Rosina's street in silhouette. The buildings are all broad shouldered and arch topped, each with at least one shuttered, high-up window letting slats of light through. The voluptuous curves of the architecture are echoed in the window and door frames, the shape of the chair backs, and even in the cuts of and stitching on the costumes. And, of course, in Bartolo's Beautiful Bel Canto Hair. (Although it beggars belief, our Bartolo's hair was even more gloriously swooped than that.)

The majority of the floor of the stage was painted a deep sky blue with a border of black surrounding it. There's nothing really to be done about it, given the complexity of a set that needs to be redressed every 12 bars by supers in full vintage costumes, but there was some failure to observe the 15th Techie Commandment, and on that blue, there was some tendency to be like unto an airport. They did take the concept, and its limitations, and run with it from the very first. The street is an empty, wide square of blue for half a beat as the scrim is flown out, then Almaviva and his minions of seduction swarm the stage. In record time, they block the chorus and assemble not just a portable stage but Fiorello's travel piano. Tote-able baby grand with carrying case = buffo gold.

The attention to visual detail also comes through in the opening scene's marvelous lighting. The architectural outlines are velvety black, and the lighting behind only just hints at the blue of the Magritte-cloud backdrop. It's simultaneously suggestive of the shocking brightness of a completely clear, full-moon night and the wholly artificial quality of day-for-night. This delicious, romantic, unreal lighting returns at the end of Act II, this time from the perspective of Rosina's tower room. Duane Schuler's lighting design is great throughout, but the lighting in these two scenes functions as elegant bookends for the highly silly, decidedly intelligent production.

The sun rises on Figaro in scene ii, gloriously. His home cum shop is brilliantly executed in shades of yellow from its gilt frame to the lazy clouds wafting across the toasted yellow sky of its back wall. The diorama effect of the framed space is complemented by flying in a square of blue cloud background at about center stage, forcing the box further downstage.

The dressing of the shop's set is a beautiful exercise in forced perspectives. Figaro himself is appropriately larger than life: His lofted bed can't quite contain his nearly naked form (kudos to both Nathan Gunn, his personal trainer, and his foot-long pixelated penis [™ Ned Flanders]), and his loll over the window sill. For balance, a grossly oversized shaving brush sits atop a cabinet opposite the loft.

The best feature, hands down, is the fireman's pole. In fact, this is so fabulous that my inner stage manager didn't even make a peep about a principal exiting the loft in this manner on stage. Furthermore, the set, the performance, the costuming, and "Largo al factotum della crittà" are all so incredibly perfect that my mind could not even register a complaint that, tragically, Nathan Gunn is getting dressed throughout this scene. Under lesser circumstances, I'd have objected to this most strenuously.

Because I'm not temporal linearity's bitch, I think it's appropriate to skip to Act II for the moment. (I think it's Act II, anyway: Tragically, the synopsis on the Pompous Program completely omits the Berta's [the maid of the Bartolo household] aria.) Berta, too, gets a diorama, but like everything about her aria, it is the inverse of Figaro's. Where his is huge, golden bang, hers is a cramped, grey whimper. He sings of his bustling, rewarding life in the thick of everything in the city; she sings of her cramped existence. He dresses in his finery to face the day; she—incredibly impressively, I might add—strips off her dowdy, fussy, complicated (and please believe that I can speak with authority on this subject, given that we had attendants at our wedding primarily because I needed a mammy to get me in and out of the dress and all its supportive architecture) period wear to reveal nothin' but [her] red silk petticoat. (Ok, she's wearing a ridiculous, head-to-toe, lingerie-or-period-equivalent get up in flame red, not just a petticoat, but work with me here.)

The other sets depicting the interior of Bartolo's house are a clever blend of black, red, and gold civilization with sky blue surrealism. There's lots of brilliant play with nested arches that suggest a maze of stuffy, twisty hallways, all alike. Likewise, the flats rolled in from the wings suggest drawn-back curtains in alternating literal and surreal incarnations. And speaking of the strangely literal, there was an intermission contretemps in which my companions ganged up on me.

spousal unit M: I don't know why there are chairs hanging from the ceiling.
Me: Because it's a Magritte-inspired metaphorical set, not a literal set.
spousal unit M: I don't know why there are chairs hanging from the ceiling.
Me: Don't make me blog the conversation about the Archbishop of Canterbury, World War I, and it being too late for me to complain about being married to Baldrick.
A (having just emerged from the bathroom): I don't know why there are chairs hanging from the ceiling.
spousal unit M: THANK you.
Me (striving not to sigh): Because it's a Magritte-inspired metaphorical set, not a literal set.
A: I get that. I don't know why there are chairs hanging from the ceiling.
Me: I think it's meant to imply that it's a house of lots of rooms, each identical in their stifling nature.
A: Ah. (Looking at spousal unit M) She's handy to have along.

Anyway, I thought it was a neat way to resolve the period-faithful elements of the design with the spareness of the overarching surrealist concept. I also loved the way they played with the balance between the two influences on the design, adding in imposing, period-appropriate columns, but painting them with the sky motif, peppering the music room with the busts of famous composers, but rendering them in ridiculous contexts, positions, and proportions.

There are two particularly terrific moments that really capture the sly magnificence of the design: The first comes at the end of Act I when supers (representing the denizens of Seville, who have had enough of the silliness from Casa Bartolo begin to crowd on to the stage. They carry music stands and a riser and commence to herding the principals hither and yon as the incredibly complex finale rages. After a number of misfires, a dozen or so supers crouch under a series of individual panels creating a sketch of Rossini's face.

The second is very near the end of the opera. It's necessary to create some drama at this point. The force of Rosina's offer to marry Bartolo must be felt as more than the typical opera protagonist's rush to judgment. As Joyce DiDonato says of her character:
"[Rosina] talks really big, like any eager adolescent, but she's never had to put her money where her mouth is, never had t actually prove what she says in her aria: 'If you touch me, I'll be a viper.' But in the single day that the opera takes place, it's time for her to actually put her words into action, so all that follows is a surprise, because she doesn't know if it's actually going to work."

As Rossini has given his heroine more substance and depth than is usual, particularly in opera buffa, production designers and stage directors would do well to treat her plight at least somewhat seriously.

In addition to doing right by Rosina, delicate treatment of the end of Act II is also crucial to fleshing out Figaro. HIs urgency in the face of the lovers' continual descent into duet is comic, certainly; but if Figaro is to be taken seriously as "the factotum of the city," (wow, I seriously wanted to go to the Yeats place there, but I simply could not wrangle the allusion) the cool, wily, practical strategist who renders the precaution useless, there has to be genuine doubt whether or not he can pull off the elopement of Rosina and Almaviva.

Plus, Rossini went to the trouble of writing this ass-kickingly, groin-grabbingly dramatic storm music, replete with rolling bass, ponderous chords, and so on. Of the music characterizing the bulk of the opera, Maestro Renzetti says:
"It's the first time the orchestra is truly comic, working in tandem with the text."

So the storm represents a complete inversion of the orchestra's character up to this point.

And inversion is really what Il Bariere is all about (in so far as such a silly story is about anything in particular). So in looking at the music here, it pays to recall the roots of opera buffa, as pompous essayist Roger Pines reminds us, in the intermezzo:
"[Opera buffa] had actually been alive almost from the beginning of opera itself. As far back aas 1642 with Monteverdi's L'incoronazion di Popea, a shor scene fro two servants occurs between acts – known as an intermezzo – which offers a light-hearted relief from the heated goings-on among the serious characters. . . . The music of the intermezzo was generally oriented in the direction of rhythmic energy, with vivid articulation of the text."

So that's my long-winded case for why the staging of the opera at this point can't just keep on keepin' on. (What do you mean you'd forgotten what point I was trying to make and were dubious that I had any point anyway? You're totally in league with my strangely literal companions, AREN'T YOU?!?) So what's a smart, classy, understated design team to do?

First of all, go grayscale in the color scheme. This is shocking after 2.5 hours of blues, golds, and reds. Even the blacks up to this point ripple and undulate with midnight blue, mourning purple, and blood red, thanks to tasteful use of sequins, lace, layering, and piping in Michael Stennet's almost impeccable costume design. Step 2, have your grayscale cyc span the entire width of the stage and drop it in just behind the apron, suddenly robbing the audience of all the crazy forced-perspective antics they've been enjoying all evening. Step 3: Have the claustrophobic, grayscale cyc depict a world that's Raining Rossinis, the perfect marriage of period and surrealism. The capstone on this delightful visual surprise was a flurry of supers struggling to cross the stage against the wind, the last of whom carries a massive umbrella that gets turned inside out by the gale, revealing, well . . . you know. (Apropos this umbrella, I can't remember where I was, but very shortly after seeing the opera, I had the misfortune to overhear a conversation in which someone persistently referred to this as a Matisse umbrella.)

Since I brought up the costume design near the end of my ramblings on the set and direction, I may as well address it more fully now. It's easily as marvelous as the set, and much of the set wouldn't work half so well without it. It bears a lot of the responsibility for period appropriateness, but the surrealist touches are light and delightful: Bartolo's aforementioned hair, the glorious, shiny, Coroner-of-Munchkinland hats, comedy mustaches, Rosina's superfly mary janes (tragically, no pictures that I can find), and Rosina's Darth Insipidous cloak (I wish, most sincerely, you could have seen her with the hood pulled up), and (also pictured in that last link), Almaviva's surreal count suit.

Rosina's costumes are, by far, the least literal, comprising a black off-the-shoulder, full-skirted tea-length number with a red sash, and then its inverse (red dress, black sash). I like the youthfulness of this style for Rosina, especially paired with the Carmen-evoking rose in her hair, but they're a little . . . off the rack at Deb, post-prom season, if you know what I mean.

Rosina is also saddled (and book-ended!) with the two most questionable costume choices of the evening: When she first makes her appearance on the balcony, she's wearing this . . . well, let's call a mumu a mumu, shall we? She's enrobed in Magritte's blue sky, but it can't quite conceal the whole volume of her black dress, and there are things peeping that might or might not be Berta, and it's just a weird choice, ok? Then, during Almaviva's final aria, she removes her cloak (and, incidentally, I love how the pink of its lining, having no precursor in the color scheme of the show, communicates that she's had her "soul's life" drained to heinous pink by Almaviva's betrayal) to reveal a dress matching Almaviva's suit. It's conceptually nice, but in execution, that dress style makes her look like she's determined to be the queen of Tackytown High's Annual Barn Dance and Stall Mucking.

Those minor quibbles, though, are the worst I have to say about the production. I'd forgotten until after we were home that that production was to have starred Juan Diego Flórez as Almaviva. John Osborn stepped into the role long enough ago that only his bio appears in the Pompous Program (Flórez apparently missed his appointment with St. Blaise this year and injured his throat on a fish bone). I won't say that Florez hasn't been missed, but Osborn certainly has been warmly received.

I'm happy to join in the warming of Osborn's cockles, although I had my reservations about him early on. I am amused to note that I had the same reservations about Flórez in La Cenerentola and came to realize that my problems really rest with Rossini and his relationship with tenors. However, both Osborn and Almaviva have conspired to give me a better appreciation of that relationship. Certainly "Lindoro's" initial serenade borrows more than just the fabulous hat from Munchkinland (i.e., too much vibrato), but this is beautifully parodied in Almaviva's turn as Don Alonso. I have to give Rossini credit not just for borrowing from himself, but for having the grace to pull off self parody. Likewise, Osborn's game, agile acting and vocal evolution throughout the two acts deserve credit for helping me along to that realization.

Nathan Gunn? Love every single thing about him. Love his voice, love his swagger, love his chemistry with every single other performer, love his comradely approach to acting. Gunn and Osborn were completely on fire together during their scene in Figaro's shop. Gunn and DiDonato schemed and teased, plotted and danced, and just generally had such a great time together you just wanted to be invited to their party. At every moment, Gunn seems totally self assured and totally enamored of those he's playing with and against. One never can tell, but I'd bet he's a delight to direct and to work with.

As we were on our way home, A commented that she was glad to see the young lovers actually being (or believably appearing) young. She further commented that lack of opera glasses (she was across the aisle from us) helped that along, but she needn't have worried. DiDonato's headshot opposite in the program seems to be from this shoot, so it's not exactly capturing the ingenue in her. It turns out, though, that her chronological age is completely irrelevant, because it seems there's nothing she can't do, vocally or physically, to make you believe whatever she likes. Her Rosina is smashingly particular, individual, and full of personality. She glides through the crowd of men around her with sophisticated grace, then stumbles, skips, and is a perfect child when no one but the audience is looking. She nails everything difficult about the role, but still sells Rosina's breathlessness and palpitations when Bartolo and Alonso come to her aid during her music lesson. Lovely, lovely, lovely.

We had Andrew Shore for our Bartolo, as he'd finished his run as Falstaff. His performance did nothing to assuage my bitterness at having missed that production. He wore his hair admirably, and he describes his approach to Bartolo better than I can:
"I can't help feeling affection for the old fool because he displays so many recognizable human weaknesses. He bolsters his self-importance with his fastidious behavior and pompous attitudes; consequently he's extremely sensitive to any perceived loss of dignity. This is such a typically English characteristic – it probably explains why I feel such sympathy for him."

He does manage to infuse a surprising amount of tenderness for the character into his portrayal, and yet he grows more and more believably sinister as the story progresses.

Wayne Tigges's Don Basilio plays well against Shore's Bartolo, but character rather bugs me. For a silly, silly comedy Rossini's characters are surprisingly three dimensional, but Basilio gets the short end of depth stick. He's slimy and self serving, not clever, and I dislike the gag of him being dirty and smelly. There's just not much to work with, but Tigges still makes him worth listening to and watching, as is usual with him.

Lauren Curnow notes in her blurb that this is her first aria at Lyric, and I'm shocked to report that my archives bear that out. Travesty! But what a way to lose one's arial virginity. She's a delightful comedienne and certainly has earned the right to respect herself every bit as much as she says she respects those who sing Rossini well. I'd further add that she performs it well, which is really, truly saying something in this production.

I had previously been instructed by WMM to say that this production sucked thoroughly. FAIL!

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