Vancouver Opera's The Barber of Seville is a frothy bit of fun
By Gioachino Rossini. A Vancouver Opera production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday, March 17. Continues until March 25
Opera can be many things: chilling, heartbreaking, thought-provoking, or—as was evidenced Saturday night at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre—very, very silly. Opening night of Vancouver Opera’s The Barber of Seville had the theatre packed to the rafters, proving that Gioachino Rossini’s beloved comic masterpiece can still draw, and please, a crowd.
While the opera, as written, needs no alteration to be enjoyed, director Dennis Garnhum has updated the action from 17th-century Spain to a 1940s film set in Seville. Rosina, who has bewitched Count Almaviva, is now a sexy movie starlet; her lecherous guardian, Doctor Bartolo, is her boss and the studio head; Figaro, the barber, is the studio hairstylist.
It’s a clever bit of tweaking that allows for plenty of sight gags—not to mention oodles of wardrobe changes, what with Rosina and the opera chorus members, as movie extras, shuffling in and out of costumes as they prepare for film shoots. Much of Act 1, in fact, has the chorus standing around in buffoonish 1940s underwear, the sight of which was enough to earn plenty of titters from the audience.
The giggles began during the overture, when it was made clear that this was not a production that took itself too seriously. The curtain rises on the cluttered film studio; a guard unlocks a gate and makes his way across the stage, pausing briefly to open a lunch box from which he ceremoniously withdraws a carrot to munch on. It is, of course, a little nod to the famous “Rabbit of Seville” Bugs Bunny cartoon, and it earned the first of many peals of laughter during the evening.
The superb cast of mainly young singers proved to be as gifted comedically as they were vocally. René Barbera as the lovesick Count Almaviva played up his character’s various disguises to the hilt; his slightly off-key take on a drunken soldier, and his obnoxious music teacher were inspired—that he possesses a sweet, flexible, and clear tenor voice only added to his appeal.
Mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy, who boasts a wonderfully rich and sensuous voice, embodied Rosina with her wit, stubbornness, and beauty—she was also game to gleefully ham it up, as in Act 2, when she and Figaro, sung by baritone Joshua Hopkins, play a cheeky game of dress-up with corsets and bras.
As for the muckraking Figaro, Hopkins played him as a delightfully flamboyant and unapologetically pompous charmer, with a physical presence approximating something between Will Ferrell and Liberace. His entrance had him madly cutting off mullets, dying hair, and powdering noses with hilarious speed—all the while nailing the vocal theatrics of the “Largo al factotum” aria. Veteran bass-baritone Thomas Hammons was wonderfully buffoonish as the hapless Bartolo, though his voice tended to lose power in its lower register and was often overpowered.
Certainly, the show was not without its faults: things got a little claustrophobic in Act 2, with everyone crammed into Rosina’s tiny dressing room for much of the action, and some of the libretto simply did not translate well to the updated setting—Bartolo is still referred to as a doctor, rather than a studio head; and why would a soldier, even a fake drunken one at that, be billeted on a film lot?
All that aside, it feels mean-spirited to start poking holes at what, in the end, is a good-natured, frothy bit of fun. And with all the sad news in Vancouver’s performing-arts world over the past couple of weeks, it’s just what the barber ordered.