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Atlanta Opera keeps 'Barber' fresh, lively

Posted: 2:59 p.m. Wednesday, April 30, 2014
By Andrew Alexander - For the AJC

Sidney Outlaw as Figaro and Irene Roberts as Rosina in the Atlanta Opera’s 2014 production of The Barber of Seville. (credit Ken Howard)
Longtime opera fans often enter a production of “The Barber of Seville” with more than a little trepidation. The inventive, frenetic energy of the comic masterpiece — as well as its almost non-stop succession of familiar hits from overture to finale — have ensured its place among the most popular operatic works of all time. But its sheer popularity and ubiquity can translate into deadly, tired, desultory productions of the crowd-pleasing warhorse.

Theater-goers should have no fear: the Atlanta Opera’s latest production of “Barber of Seville” is a lively, inventive, colorful and charming show that’s likely to win over opera newcomers and aficionados alike.

There’s an irresistible, fittingly outlandish quality to this production. The sets don’t evoke a particular place, but playfully suggest 19th century ideas about scenery and spectacle in a subtle wink about the artificiality and staginess of the opera’s action. The backdrops and elaborately painted proscenium look like a toy-stage a royal child might have had centuries ago. The costumes follow suit for the most part, but occasionally cross the line from stagey to downright cartoonish and kitschy, as with the eye-poppingly bright uniforms of the soldiers or with the candy-striped and neon-capped Figaro, whose costume is more Looney Tunes than Rossini.

Still, stage director José Maria Condemi gives us lots of fun and wonderful stage business throughout: the character Figaro here becomes a powerful master of ceremonies, not just manipulating and tricking the other characters, but overseeing the action itself (he lights the stage at the opening with a snap of his fingers, or coaxes an army of soldiers to sleep one by one with a light tap of his fingers). It can’t be easy to arrive on stage singing what must be the most familiar and parodied aria in all of opera, but Sidney Outlaw as Figaro clearly dives headfirst into “Largo al Factotum” with a fresh sense of playfulness. In the same spirit, he and Javier Abreu as Almaviva achieve glory in their subsequent duet hatching the plot to disguise the count as a drunken soldier.

Irene Roberts as Rosina shines early on in the star-turn aria “Una Voce Poco Fa,” but her voice actually becomes even richer and more alluring in its lush suppleness as the performance progresses: she handles the careening turns of the part with agility and ease. Though nowadays Rosina is often played by a high soprano, the part was actually written for a mezzo such as Roberts, and her performance is an object lesson in why that voice type is so fitting. There’s a lusty richness in what she brings to the role that a high and pure soprano never could impart in just the same way. She can sound languorous and sugary, but just as quickly she can adopt speed and drama, even a touch of viciousness (Rosina promises to become a viper if she’s double-crossed after all: this is no cloistered, passive ingénue). Stefano de Peppo is masterfully comedic as Rosina’s guardian and virtual jailer, Dr. Bartolo.

Lovesick Count Almaviva in disguise as “Lindoro”(Javier Abreu) a drunk army officer, spies his love, Rosina (Irene Roberts) in the Atlanta Opera’s 2014 production of The Barber of Seville. (Credit: Ken Howard).
Although the chorus seldom takes center stage in “Barber,” the Atlanta Opera Chorus nonetheless sounds especially fine in what they’re given to do: a brief scene in which members of the chorus play musicians importuning Almaviva usually doesn’t attract much notice in most productions, but here it stands out as an interesting and lovely comic flourish. Nineteenth century frenetic humor becomes 20th century absurdity and surrealism in the Act I finale, as various stage elements and oversized props descend from the rafters or are passed from singer to singer in a dreamlike dissolution of the action much like the tornado scene in Wizard of Oz (Strangely, though

the ensemble sounds fantastic, the musical performance never quite achieves the helter-skelter lunacy the visuals promise: there’s a strangely subdued and controlled quality to what should amount to an orchestral storm).
A performance of “Barber” can either be a pure joy or its succession of opera hits can feel leaden and processional. Fortunately, the Atlanta Opera manages to get the candy-coated, mischievous, even subversive qualities of Rossini’s masterpiece just right.

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