A Cut Above

Opera Theatre of St. Louis stages a smashing Barber

May 24, 2006 at 4:00 am
The Barber of Seville is the most performed comic opera of all time — in the great, wide opera world of Europe and the smaller world of Opera Theatre of St. Louis. OTSL opened its 31st season this past Saturday night with its third rendering of Barber. This bawdy, chaotic and satirical take on composer Gioacchino Rossini's classic farce owes as much to the 1944 Woody Woodpecker and the 1950 Bugs Bunny animated versions as to the company's own 1985 and '96 productions. And that turns out to be a good thing.

The Barber of Seville has always been a subversive story. It debuted as the Romantic Era, the tide of revolution and the rise of democracy were overwhelming Europe's decaying aristocracy. The opera's two primary characters, Count Almaviva and Figaro, the barber, embody this historic shift. The Count falls in love with a commoner, Rosina, but fears that if he professes his love she will only want him for his money or position. So he woos her in disguise. The Romantic idea that feelings are the best basis for marriage and the notion that title and wealth could be an impediment to happiness were direct attacks on the values of the aristocratic class.

Figaro, the barber, is a fixer, a hustler and a true democrat. He understands the power of advertising and spends a good bit of the opera telling everyone how clever and resourceful he is. Figaro serves both the ruling and common classes with equal devotion because his true allegiance is to making a buck. He epitomizes the rise of the new bourgeoisie that would inherit the power of the aristocracy.

In most productions of Barber, the men are lovable, sympathetic characters, as is Rosina, who's being trapped into marriage by a lecherous old coot, Dr. Bartolo. In OTSL director Ken Cazan's darkly ironic version, Figaro, Almaviva and Rosina — as well as Bartolo's co-conspirator, Basilio; his nurse/housekeeper, Berta; the notary who marries the young lovers; and even the musicians the Count hires to help him with his courting — are only interested in what's in it for themselves. They're as petty, scheming and self-serving as the cast of a Seinfeld episode. Cazan has subverted Rossini into brilliantly modern and hilarious chaos.

Cazan resets the story in the 1920s. Lighting director Mark McCullough and set designer Cameron Anderson take full advantage of the era shift. The opening backdrop looks like a normal, if somewhat stripped down Barber set. Hints that things are gonna get strange begin when costume designer Kathryn Grillo causes music stands to grow out of the hats of Almaviva's musicians — a very funny effect. Soon Dr. Bartolo, an evil scientist played with complexity by Patrick Carfizzi, makes an entrance straight out of a Marx Brothers movie. Anderson cranks it up in Scene Two with a spectacularly insane imagining of a mad scientist's lab. The Doc has been trying (scientifically of course) to figure out what makes women tick. The lab features a Penthouse Forum-inspired collection of corsets, high heels and plaster body parts, tied together by an outrageous mural based on Botticelli's Venus.

OTSL's young singers' comic acting fits right in. Cazan has them taking risks rare in the staid opera world. Hugh Russell's Figaro, Alek Shrader's Almaviva and Joshua Winograde's Basilio join Carfizzi on the fine line between being in the opera and commenting operatically on the stylized form expected in romantic Italian opera. Kate Lindsey's Rosina is even more finely honed and subtly played than the male roles. A gifted comic actress, she leads the cast in pushing vocal ornamentation to its comic edge.

They are talented singers, whose voices meld beautifully in the duets, trios, quartets, etc. that Rossini demands of them. In fact, one of the triumphs of this production is its ability to amuse us at the expense of the play without in any way debasing Rossini's luscious melodies and gorgeous harmonies. Conductor Dean Williamson and the orchestra play it straight, allowing the actors to evoke the comedy. The result is a daring piece of theater — for opera.