The San Francisco Opera has temporarily left its home in San Francisco's Civic Center and decamped to the Marin Civic Center Fairgrounds for a pandemic-safe set of performances of Rossini's 1816 opera, The Barber of Seville.
There are two audience areas on different sides of the central lagoon where patrons park their cars. For sound, you are instructed to tune into a dedicated FM radio signal, so the better car radio you have, the better it will be. I was initially wary of the sound mixing after a few terrible experiences at the War Memorial Opera House, such as Sweeney Todd, but the audio mixing was superb.
If you have the money, I'd recommend buying tickets for the "Fairgrounds" stage where the live performance is happening with two large screens on either side of the huge stage rather than the "Lagoon" area where you are just seeing the video feed.
The audience is instructed to stay in their cars for the duration, unless they are walking with their mask on to a port-a-potty, but the surroundings were too beautiful, so I walked to the lagoon before the 8PM curtain and ran into the resident Mallard duck.
He waddled out of the water, and walked up to within three feet, and we had a delightful conversation. The extensive protocols for COVID safety in rehearsal and performance for this ambitious attempt at bringing back large-scale live opera are an extraordinary story in themselves, but the mandated restrictions for the audience struck me as a bit of overkill. We know how to wear masks and keep our distance.
The production, conceived by director Matthew Ozawa, featured a sweetly flexible concept. It begins with opera singers returning to the War Memorial Opera House and going through a series of rehearsals, alone in their dressing rooms, together in rehearsal halls, and culminating with the opera's finale in full costume onstage. The projections of the front of the Opera House were photo-real, including the fencing that has been part of the endless Van Ness Transit Improvement Project. It was a bit surreal driving across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin and seeing the building that I look at every morning from my San Francisco living room. (All production photos are by Stefan Cohen.)
The choice of the ubiquitous Barber of Seville with a familiar cast in a virtual replica of the War Memorial Opera House felt like an attempt at comfort food for SF Opera audiences. There's nothing wrong with that if the food/performance is done well, and this production offered all manner of delights.
First off, the physical production was inventive and beautiful, using the same rented stage from Gallagher Staging as the Coachella Valley Arts and Music Festival, and the visuals had a rock concert excitement that enhanced rather than distracted. Alexander V. Nichols, set and projections, Jessica Jahn, costumes, and JAX Messenger, lighting designer all deserve the highest praise. Pictured above is baritone Lucas Meacham as Figaro, the title Barber, singing in his dressing room while fracturing all over the projected screens.
The Barber of Seville has never really worked for me on the huge stage of the War Memorial because it's meant for a smaller house, and the comic schtick tends to be overplayed. Pocket Opera, with a brilliantly witty translation by Donald Pippin, produced a small-house version at the Legion of Honor Museum in 2019 that was a revelation (click here). Catherine Cook, the great San Francisco character soprano pictured above, has played the comic maid Berta in five previous SFO productions dating back to 1996, and she is a genuinely funny exception to the rule. It was a joy to see and hear her again.
This production is essentially a Greatest Hits of Barber, jettisoning minor characters, the chorus, and all the comic recitative. It was a sensible choice, not just for pandemic reasons but artistically, though if you don't know the story beforehand, it isn't going to make much sense. I only wish they had kept the musical numbers in Italian, because the serviceable English translation by Marcie Stapp is difficult to sing in the many lightning-fast patter numbers, particularly with the reduced orchestra in a separate tent backstage conducted by the debuting Roderick Cox. The always welcome bass, Kenneth Kellogg, as the music teacher Don Basilio had a particularly difficult time keeping in sync during the aria La Calumnia, his famous paean to destroying reputations through slander.
The tenor Alek Shrader as Count Almaviva was an amusing, winning presence throughout, and Philip Skinner as Don Bartolo was outstanding, with the best diction and singing of the evening.
Daniela Mack played Rosina, the object of everyone's machinations who is secretly running the show, and she was in great voice, rich and warm. The singer is also noticeably pregnant, and she looked radiant.
The ensembles were gorgeous, and it was obvious that the performers were ecstatic at being able to sing with each other after months of wondering if they would ever be able to do so again. Congratulations are in order for everyone involved, including the 100+ backstage staff housed in a complex of tents that rivaled anything put up by Cirque du Soleil.
My only thumbs down are for the Marin Fairgrounds staff who wandered around throughout the performance in the most distracting way possible. Imagine being in the War Memorial House and having ushers in reflective vests walking up and down the aisles while the opera is onstage. This was opening night, so maybe they will behave better in the subsequent nine performances over the next three weeks. (Click here for tickets.)