A Vancouver Opera production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday, February 13. Continues until February 23
From its stylized cake-pop trees to its finale’s flurry of candy-coloured confetti, Vancouver Opera’s new rendition of The Barber of Seville is a hugely enjoyable treat.
In the hands of director Ashlie Corcoran, who knows a thing or two about farce thanks to her theatre background, this staging becomes an elaborately choreographed celebration of opera buffa.
A young, hyperenergized cast executes it with clockwork comedic timing, never missing the chance for a well-placed eye-roll or shrug at the audience. Funny business spreads out across the stage, often while the cast is pulling off jet-speed patter sections and overlapping melodies.
Outlandish touches include a Count Almaviva (Isaiah Bell) who disguises himself in an insane Louise Brooks–vintage black-bob wig, and a Rosina (Julie Boulianne) who, when she isn’t serving a glass of mop water to her lecherous guardian, Dr. Bartolo (Thomas Goerz), soothes her heartbreak with a bucket of ice cream in bed.
Because of the vibrant cast, the show’s overall impression is of youth raucously overcoming old age, the smart outwitting the dim at every turn, and love trumping all.
Gioacchino Rossini’s opera tells the story of how a besotted Almaviva conspires to court Rosina, who’s locked in her house by Bartolo; the grumpy geezer wants to marry her himself. The comedy plays out amid Ken MacDonald’s playful, stylized white set, with its rotating swirly-cone turrets and spiral stairways—a design that adeptly manages the coming and going, and captures the frothy mood of Corcoran’s take.
Barber should never be about standing and singing—and this production doesn’t sacrifice action for music. Much of the effect is thanks to baritone Edward Nelson’s suave, agile, and authoritative Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, the title character who’s the master orchestrator of all the deception and mayhem.
Boulianne proves as gifted at singing as she is at physical comedy, playing the proverbial handful Rosina. She manoeuvres through a head-spinning range of both notes and moods in her hilarious “Una voce poco fa”, by turns exceedingly sweet and fiercely angry—often gritting her teeth in rage. (“If you touch my weak parts I will be a viper.”)
The sight gags never dampen the full-blown chemistry she has with Bell’s count; they can barely keep their hands off each other when he pretends to give her singing lessons. As for Bell, he’s a natural comedian—his facial expressions are worth the price of admission—with a lovely, nuanced tenor.
VO favourite Goerz makes a hilariously bumbling Bartolo, while grounding the ensemble numbers in his rich bass-baritone. And a shout-out must go both to Gena Van Oosten, for nearly stealing the show in the housekeeper Berta’s exasperated aria, and to Taehyun Jun, whose Don Basilio (Rosina’s real music teacher) is wonderfully doltish as Bartolo’s sycophantic toady.
If there’s any quibble with the well-known music, it might be that Rossini’s famous crescendos sometimes don’t build to the volume they need. Still, youthful Canadian conductor Nathan Brock gives the score the necessary light touch and swift tempo. At one point he appeared to lock eyes with Bell and smile widely as the performer accelerated into Rossini’s vocal acrobatics.
In fact, everyone seems to be having a blast in this Barber, and the joy is contagious. Don’t get the wrong idea: this isn’t silly, Bugs Bunny Barber; there’s far too much finesse. The production’s carefully calibrated music and comedy is extremely difficult to get right, but the cast and crew pull it off with the ease of one of Figaro’s smooth shaves.