Shave and a Haircut: “The Barber of Seville,” Washington National Opera, September 17, 2009
“The Barber of Seville” is iconic for a reason: It’s a splendid machine for entertainment, as long as you wind the gears right and put fuel of a high-enough octane into the tank. Whatever else you want to say about the Washington National Opera’s current production of “Barber” gets that machine humming — despite occasional misfires and stalls, it puts a smile on your face with not-inconsiderable frequency.
Of course, I approach the task of reviewing this opera as someone ignorant even of this cornerstone of the repertoire, although I feel familiar enough with many of the tunes from Bugs Bunny or uses as “we’re at the opera now” signifiers in other media. But even after the overture’s delicious figurations stop their iconic whirling and whipping, and after Figaro stops shouting his own name like Mike Jones, Rossini hides yet another catchy tune around every corner, and conductor Joseph Mechavich kept the pace up — so much so that, on Thursday, some of the singers had trouble keeping up with their accompaniment, most notably baritone Keith Phares, this performance’s Figaro, in the aforementioned “Largo al factotum.”
Apart from those struggles, Phares sang bright and vividly, as did soprano Ketevan Kemoklizde as Rosina and bass Valeriano Lanchas as Doctor Bartolo. But although the music itself remained fresh, one felt an absence of dramatic intensity at points. None of those singers characterized their roles with any distinction; Kemoklizde in particular, seemed to have assembled a sly coquette from various generally accepted coquettish gestures. It wasn’t unpleasant — she was fun to look at, hit her comedic marks, and sang well — just intermittently dull. (In this way, her performance bettered that of Grigory Soloviov as Don Basilio; he held his arms out from his body like Frankenstein for completely unexplained reasons, frequently looked lost on stage, and didn’t sing all that well either.)
Director David Gately didn’t help the singers much, giving them silly bits of business to keep them moving during the less action-packed arias. Sometimes these scored laughs — anything involving Alberghini’s Figaro looking at money like a hungry dog seeing a T-bone, in particular — and some just felt corny. It is my considered opinion that, in this century, you have to earn the right to include a spit-take in any dramatic work, but Doctor Bartolo’s rendition added nothing. Similarly, the “Matrix”-like slo-mo ensemble/fight that closed Act I was funny for the first couple minutes, but soon it was just absurd, and yet it went on and on after that.
One singer did put some drama into his role: tenor Lawrence Brownlee as Count Almaviva. At first, his voice doesn’t seem to have any obvious splendor beyond that required to be a professional singer, but there’s a hard core to it and a little glow around that. More than that, he sang with the crispness, style, and swagger that one associates with stars in any genre of music; concentrating on his vocal line because of his approach, you start to appreciate the beauty of his instrument. In the opening aria, Almaviva sings a plea for Rosina to come to her window when, in this production, she was already there, missed only because Almaviva faced the audience the whole time. My annoyance at this opera-staging absurdity vanished seconds after Brownlee’s committment and command of the aria became apparent. The much-anticipated “Cessa di più resistere” topped everything else in the opera, but even his earlier solo arias seemed to stop all other action on the stage. Nice to be reminded that a well-tuned comedic machine can, with the right operator, produce a little magic too.