When it comes to opera, there will always be certain barriers to entry. One of the major ones is, of course, is our own preconceptions, that operas are so often hyper-serious, stuffy affairs. There are other more serious ones, such as length (most operas do run 3 hours or more), and the language barrier (the best operas are also often in a language other than English). However, as I’ve learned through the past few years, to miss out on an opera for either of these reasons is to miss out on something truly awe-inspiring, and Austin Opera is currently providing a great entry-point, with their absolutely hilarious, beautifully choreographed production of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”.
“The Barber of Seville” is a simple story, told beautifully. As the play begins we meet the Count Almaviva, who has become enraptured by the beautiful, young Rosina. Standing in his way, however, is Dr. Bartolo, Guardian of Rosina, who is making plans to marry his ward for her inheritance. Luckily for Almaviva, the titular, well-to-do barber, Figaro, has plans to help the Count out (for a price). What follows is the stuff of high farce, as Almaviva and Figaro come up with numerous plans to whisk Rosina away from her harsh guardian, though their plans always seem to fall apart.
From word one, “Barber of Seville” transports us to the streets of Spain, and much of this is due to the spectacular production design. Whether the streets of the city, to the cushy, well-detailed interiors of the doctor’s chateau, it’s obvious scenic designer Peter Dean Beck has put a lot of thought into making sure that each element of the design helps to give the feel of the period, as well as making each part seem lived-in, authentic. Also helping to make the piece feel more authentic are the gorgeous costumes designed by Susan Memmott Allred. Polished, well-designed, and stunningly detailed, the costumes make a true artistic statement in their own right, without ever feeling gaudy or over-touched. It all comes together to create a cohesive, engaging world in which our characters can weave their wondrous tale.
One surprising element of the play is how strong a character Rosina seems, especially for the period. True, she spends much of her time in the piece waiting to be rescued, but the amount of vim and venom she exhibits is admirable. Indeed, she gives as good as she gets more often than not when confronted by her Guardian, taking her own steps to plan her escape. As we learn later in the play, she’s also a woman well in touch with her sexuality, putting the moves on the disguised count throughout in very hilarious ways, adding in a refreshingly bawdy element that this critic was truly not expecting. Jennifer Rivera’s talent for expression truly makes the character, as she gives a sharp, well-nuanced performance that truly adds interesting dimension to Rosina.
Of course, this opera would be nothing without a powerful actors in the lead role, and luckily, Troy Cook cuts a fine Figaro. He first pops on to the scene with energy and bravado, and doesn’t drop a bit of it as the piece progresses. He’s one of those rare characters that’s never quite in the hero’s camp, but who we can’t help but love, his clever, conniving plans always seeming to blow up in the others’ faces. He also carries out some amazing vocal feats, as he, and the other characters, are often forced to sing overlapping verses, as well as lightning quick vocals, and Cook never skips a beat. It’s a remarkable performance, and one can only hope this amazing actor can grace Austin theaters again sooner, rather than later.
Surprisingly fun, gorgeously designed, and impeccably acted, “The Barber of Seville” is a great starting point for anyone looking to get into opera. Austin Opera continues to get better with every show, and so one can only imagine how good they will become going into their next season. I, for one, will be sure to grab a seat at their next production.
Photo Courtesy of Austin Opera