Saturday, November 19, 2016

Fizz and ample fun add extra animation to Rossini's music in Indianapolis Opera's "Barber of Seville"

A stage director can hardly go wrong adding hijinks to complement the music that has made Gioacchino Rossini's "Barber of Seville" the foremost comic opera in the repertoire.

Figaro lays out a plan for the eager aristocrat prepared to pay him well, Almaviva.
Accordingly, there is no let-up in the flourishes and frolic stage director John Truitt has brought to the Indianapolis Opera production that will run through Sunday at the Tarkington in Carmel. Fortunately, the production also enjoys good musical preparation, guided by Matthew Kraemer, conducting the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, of which he is music director. Apart from some lack of precision in rapid ensembles and a few "patter" solos, coordination between stage and pit was shipshape.

Spark plug of the comic intrigue that powers "The Barber of Seville" is the title character, Figaro, who makes himself available for a price to the lovesick nobleman Almaviva. The role was sung by Michael Kelly, who was ceaselessly expressive and energetic as well as in command of the kind of robust high baritone that works best in the opera. He helped buoy up Ben Robinson as Count Almaviva in the early scenes. (Kelly shares a name with one of opera history's most notable singers, an Irish tenor who was a friend of Mozart.)

A capable actor, Robinson did not seem quite vocally comfortable at first. I first noticed a warm, flowing sound when he came on in the first of Figaro's schemes as a drunken soldier. From then on, Robinson seemed at home in the role, aptly amusing also as the fake substitute music teacher, Figaro's second ruse to put the lovers in proximity.

But that first appearance had to compete with the nonsense of Jacob Pence's Fiorello (the count's servant) conducting the accompaniment of Almaviva's serenade to his confined lady love, Rosina. There is nothing wrong with underlining the story's silliness, which Rossini's music supports at nearly every turn. But a fully instrumented men's chorus, miming the accompaniment in response to Fiorello's florid gestures, felt over-the-top.  It was hard to focus on the imperishable "Ecco ridente," Almaviva's hopeful address to the nubile ward of Doctor Bartolo, who intends to make her his bride.

Truitt's way of moving characters about the stage was imaginative and matched the score's liveliness. For the first-act finale,
"Fredda ed immobile," the full ensemble, including the guards who have come to arrest Almaviva before he identifies himself as a Spanish grandee, are truly "frozen and immobile." This was a good way to stage a concluding number that takes up substantial room and literally halts the action. Only Figaro gets to move around and manipulate the tableau — true to his character as well when the residents of the Seville he knows so well are in their normal "thawed" condition.

Other famous showpieces come up to the edge of looking more confusing than they should. Don Basilio, the music teacher
A fine ensemble puts the cap on the intricate romantic comedy of "The Barber of Seville."
who suggests to Bartolo a campaign of slander against the Count, was solidly portrayed by basso Raphael Porto. His aria "La calunnia" indicates the progress of a rumor from the merest whisper to a virtual thunderstorm.

With Betsy Cooprider-Bernstein's lighting design including bursts in and around the set, there is an attempt to underline what Basilio is singing about with a literalism that doesn't quite work. (The real thunderstorm that occurs near the end of the show also needed some suggestion, however slight, of actual rain.) Add to that Basilio's knocking about the narcoleptic servant Ambrogio (Tyler Ostrander, in a nonsinging, yawning role) in imitation of slander's career, and you have a scene almost realized more through what you see than what you hear.

The hard-working cast carried through the infectious cheeriness of Truitt's concept. Tony Dillon's Bartolo in particular shone among his colleagues. His portrayal Friday night had the bustling self-importance of a guardian whose romantic designs are headed for certain defeat, but Bartolo never gives up. The role requires constant all-out investment in the goal the doctor has long had in view; he must make the impression that countering the amorous Count is the most important thing he has ever done. That's what Dillon accomplished.

Deborah Domanski's Rosina conveyed her character's restiveness under Bartolo's watchful eye and her openness to cooperating with any intrigue necessary to get her into the arms of the suitor she at first knows only as Lindoro. Her introductory aria, "Una voce poco fa," took on more prominence in this show than usual, as it introduced the show's opening interior scene after a long break to effect a set change. The second part of the aria made clear Rosina's reasonableness and docility, but only when she isn't crossed. Domanski served notice vividly that this was the Rosina her guardian had better be prepared to deal with. The other female role, the servant Berta (at first just a buffoonish sneezer), was neatly handled by Megan Moore in an irrelevant but catchy second-act aria about the minefields of love.

"The  Barber of Seville" works all the fun up to a foamy lather, but happily centers itself on the musical excellence that keeps the 24-year-old Rossini's creation alive.

[Photos by Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.]