Domanski may be the best Cherubino we’ve seen.

— Tulsa World

REVIEW: New Orleans Opera, Barber of Seville

New Orleans Opera Association’s production of Rossini’s ‘The Barber of Seville.’

by Andrew Adler, The Times-Picayune, November 17, 2012

Can you say ‘Figaro’? New Orleans Opera Association opens its subscription season with ‘The Barber of Seville’… Gala performances are all well and fine, but the true measure of an opera company lies in how it chooses, casts and produces the core repertory of a season. So with its Placido Domingo gala safely and successfully behind it, the New Orleans Opera Association turned to Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” as the first of three works to be presented between now and the close of the subscription schedule in April.

Few works have been so closely linked to this company. Association archivist Jack Belsom writes in a program note that “The Barber of Seville” had been performed “on 25 evenings” before emerging yet again Friday, Nov. 16, night at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts. Indeed, Belsom observed, “by the end of the 19th century it had been staged in New Orleans, in French, Italian or English, some 150 times.”

Whether you call that kind of popularity wonderfully affirming or un-wonderfully ubiquitous depends, I guess, on your perspective as opera-goer. I must confess that I’ve seen and heard enough productions of “Barber” to keep me pretty much sated for whatever years I have left. Still, given as strong an effort as the New Orleans Opera is currently mounting, I’ll save any grumbling for another occasion. If you’re going to present something as centrist as this Rossini opera, you’d better be ready to deliver.

Friday’s performance delivered abundantly, reflecting the care and feeding of a cast expert at rendering the composer’s buffa style as something greater than a montage of slapstick-like sequences. Matthew Latta’s staging accomplished just that, offering airiness and dynamism to encourage an audience to parse its various elements with fresh eyes and ears. He respected and acknowledged tradition, while never being reluctant to challenge empty convention.

The most obvious example came when Michael Worth’s brash, athletic, and keenly musical Figaro tossed off “Largo al factotum” while scooting down one of the Mahalia Jackson’s center aisles – picking his way among presumably startled patrons before bounding up to the stage. Beyond this, however, Latta injected compelling physicality into specific scenes that can often seem moribund. He had veteran bass Samuel Ramey’s wily Don Basilio sing from atop a (mock) harpsichord, arms outstretched as though belting out a sizzling number at a Vegas lounge act.

Deborah Domanski’s Rosina deftly negotiated various trips up and down staircases, and Thomas Hammons’ Doctor Bartolo — time after time the heart of this opera – was a veritable whirling dervish of haughty befuddlement. A great deal of activity, to be sure. But tellingly, a great deal of sense and logic.

Aspects of this approach tied in with the transparency and articulation that define Rossini’s comic musical methodology. Friday’s singers understood the notion of the idiomatic Rossini phrase, a way of precisely modulating vocal attack and decorative accent to bolster the identities of their respective characters. “The Barber of Seville” has been given to all manner of selective transpositions and interpolations, with a history of star singers choosing to emphasize themselves rather than the score. That can be fun. But it can also be distracting.

Happily, Friday’s cast managed to avoid most potential stumbling points. Even when there were unavoidable compromises – particularly tenor Michele Angelini — who sang Count Almaviva while shaking off the effects of illness earlier in the week -– the results were laudably authentic and intuitive.

As a mezzo, Domanski made her Rosina vocally flexible and lustrous in a way that confirmed how this role can suit singers of differing tonal perspectives. “Una voce poca fa,” Rosina’s early act-one cavatina, did not devolve into mannerism; it was a confession of deep and mysterious longing. Elsewhere, Domanski -– because she never gave too much too soon – could fool a listener into believing her voice was fundamentally modest in scale. Then, in a rush of thrilling crescendo, she would reveal a ringing and securely supported top. That’s what we call skill, and just as important, taste.

Ramey, for decades one of the most distinguished basses anywhere, was wickedly pleasurable regaling the splendors of slander amid “La calunnia e un venticello.” When the slanderous breeze became a storm, his voice gained appropriate proportion and sumptuous roundness.

Though it was evident that Angelini was conserving his vocal resources, he mustered the necessary creaminess and dynamic urgency to Almaviva, both in solo and ensemble. No quibbles, however, about Hammons’ Bartolo. It was a masterly, encompassing interpretation.

So was Worth’s Figaro, the barber who whips up a splendid solution to whatever problem presents itself. His singing was full of verve and intelligence; his sense of theatricality almost always unerring. Regardless of the mayhem surrounding him, this Figaro remained in absolute, delectable control of comic circumstance.

Among supporting roles, Lenora Green was a pert, vivacious Berta. Members of the New Orleans Opera Chorus sang heartily and occupied the stage with assurance. Words matter, and they made certain that diction was precise, not approximate.

Robert Lyall, the company’s general and artistic director, conducted members of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra with an emphasis on tautness and elegance of line. Not every moment was pristine, but the fundamental worthiness of his account – and the advocacy of his singers – was consistently apparent.

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