I saw the final performance of Rossini's The Barber of Sevllle at the Legion of Honor last Sunday, and it was the first time I've ever enjoyed the opera. The production featured a witty, singable English translation by Donald Pippin, some judicious cuts to a long comedy, and an ensemble cast that obviously loved playing with each other. Also for the first time ever, I actually cared about the romantic fate of the young lovers Rosina and Almaviva thanks to the charming performances of soprano Maya Kherani and tenor Sergio González above.
Donald Pippin, who attended the performance, was a musical polymath who emigrated from the East Coast to San Francisco in the 1950s and started a chamber music series in North Beach that eventually branched into operas with translations by Pippin himself. Pocket Opera has been around since the 1970s after audiences put together a company for Pippin, with a mission to prosleytize for the art of opera by presenting them in English before the advent of supertitles. Pippin is now in his nineties and Nicolas A. Garcia (above right) has taken over the reins as Artistic Director with the SF Symphony's Jeffrey Jordan as the company's new Executive Director.
The principal singers varied in musical quality, but they were all expert actors who mostly underplayed the usual comic schtick which characterizes most productions of this opera, and some of their scenes were genuinely funny. Tenor Sergio González was off-pitch and off-beat from the 10-person orchestra in his first scene, but he recovered nicely. Soprano Maya Kherani played Rosina as an anachronistic 21st century girl who isn't ruffled by much and has a few cards up her sleeves. Her singing was lovely, especially the crystalline trills that were amazing in an how-can-she-do-that way. Baritone Igor Vieira was one of the sweeter Barbers I have seen and sang the English translation with wit, precision, and a nice tone. Like everyone else in the cast, he didn't oversing in the small theater, which was heavenly.
The ensemble playing street musicians and Keystone Cops were a delight, musically together and physically so differentiated that their appearance was funny without their having to do much more than walk around in circles. Above, left to right, is Dennis Carrillo, Brian Drury, Jose Hernandez, Steve Kahn and J.T. Williams.
The lecherous old characters of Don Bartolo and Don Basilio are often big bores, but Lee Strawn as Bartolo and Jason Sarten as Basilio gave interesting performances which almost made them sympathetic. Their mastery of patter singing the English translation, particularly by Strawn, was worthy of Gilbert & Sullivan. The orchestra was conducted by Mary Chun from the contemporary music group Earplay, and it was a treat hearing her conduct one of Rossini's best scores. The job was particularly tricky in this case because the orchestra was at the back of the stage and the singers couldn't see her much of the time. The orchestra itself sounded scrawny at times and like a full 50-piece ensemble at other moments. During the full-voice finales of the two acts, the sound was enormously rich. There is an alchemy to any successful theatrical production, and it was obvious this group had stumbled across some of that magic.