Friday, February 12, 2016
Super Music Week 5: The Other Barber of Seville
As an antidote to the newly evolving United States national holiday celebrating male aggression, I spent Super Bowl Sunday at Oakland's Mills College where the undergraduates are all women. The excuse was to attend a rare performance of Giovanni Paisello's 1782 opera, The Barber of Seville, a popular success written 34 years before Rossini's operatic version of the same Beaumarchais play which quickly supplanted the Paisello.
The West Edge Opera company has moved its Medium Rare concert opera program this year from the Rossmoor Community Center to Lisser Hall at Mills, which is a little jewel box of a theater seating around 200 people.
What appeared to be close to a full house was entertained by the familiar story and the odd differences in its telling. For instance, who knew that the jack-of-all-trades Figaro (baritone Nicholas Nackley on the left) wrote unsuccessful operas in Madrid while seeking his fame and fortune away from Count Almaviva (tenor Jonathan Smucker on the right)?
The music is well worth hearing, melodic and inventive, more in the manner of Mozart and Haydn than the "modern style" of Rossini. There are plenty of comic arias and ensembles, along with sweet arias for the young lovers, Count Almaviva and Rosina, the only female role in the opera who everyone is scheming with, against, and around. Sara Duchovnay sang well and didn't overplay the cuteness of Rosina which I've seen in too many productions of the Rossini opera.
Pierre Beaumarchais has to be one of the most fascinating characters of 18th century Western history. He was an apprentice to his watchmaking father in Paris, invented an escapement that improved accuracy, had the idea stolen by a royal watchmaking mentor, then made a public stink in the press claiming he was the real inventor. Pierre became a celebrity overnight and was appointed royal watchmaker by Louis XV. He married two rich women with titles who mysteriously died early in their marriages, dabbled in get-rich schemes, published the collected works of Voltaire soon after the philosopher's death, lobbied and organized practical aid for the American Revolution, and wrote a series of very successful plays. If his Wikipedia page is to be trusted, he also spent a large chunk of his life in litigation, suing and being sued. 18th century France seemed as lawsuit-crazy as the United States is today, which possibly explains all the many disputed contracts that appear in his plays. (Pictured above is Nackley as Figaro playing acoustic air guitar while Almaviva sings a serenade which was one of the funnier moments of the afternoon.)
Beaumarchais was also a music teacher to Louis XV's four daughters who played the harp, and it was fun seeing the music teacher Don Basilio played by the baritone Ben Kazez (above left) as a pliable and bribeable young man on the make rather than the irascible old fart that is usually portrayed in the Rossini opera. Carl King as Don Bartolo trying to take advantage of his wealthy ward Rosina is the same unlikable character from every commedia dell'arte play that features an old lecher being foiled by young love. How Don Bartolo is really foiled is through sheer economics. Count Almaviva not only has noble blood and handsome youth on his side, but he can bribe everyone to do what he wants. This unvarnished version of the play in the Paisello opera feels a bit more revolutionary than the post-French Revolution Rossini.
The uncut, slightly over two-hour opera was lovingly performed by Musical Director Jonathan Khuner in an amazing display of speed as he would jump from complex piano accompaniment to an electric keyboard standing in for the harpsichord continuo, pausing only to look up at his three-person orchestra and the singers at crucial moments. There were no major vocal standouts in the cast, but there wasn't a bad singer in the bunch, which was remarkable, and everyone worked beautifully together. Pictured above are left to right Nikolas Nackley as Figaro, Alex Frankel as Giovinetto, Jonathan Smucker as Count Almaviva, Sara Duchovnay as Rosina, Ben Kazez as Don Basilio, Carl King as Don Bartolo, and the always dependable John Minagro as Svegliato and A Notary.
Leoncavallo's version of La Boheme is up next in what West Edge Opera is calling its Doppelgänger Season, at Mills again on March 20th and at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage on March 22nd.