Ongoing in February and through mid April, LA Opera presents their series, “Figaro Unbound”, celebrating the work of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the 18th century French playwright whose plays were the source of two of opera’s most loved works. The second in the Beaumarchais series, The Barber of Seville, opened on February 28 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Rossini’s ever-pleasing opera appeared in a charming and witty production from Teatro Real Madrid.

Rodion Pogossov (Figaro) and René Barbera (Almaviva) © Craig T Mathew
Rodion Pogossov (Figaro) and René Barbera (Almaviva)
© Craig T Mathew

Modular black-and-off-white sets, designed by Llorenç Corbella, easily converted an exterior street in Seville to the spacious and aristocratic interior of Dr Bartolo’s home. Their changes were put in motion by dancers and actors that comprised the waggish loungers and inhabitants of Seville. The opera’s final scenes are splashed out in a vivid palette of sets with vibrant costumes by Renata Schussheim: everything and everyone is transformed by Rosina and Count Almaviva’s love. Almaviva’s hot pink frock coat and trousers positively vibrate next to Rosina’s matching pink with polka dots gown and Figaro’s red suit.

In the midst of this dynamic and elegant setting, a wonderful cast exercised their formidable vocal chords. Texas-born René Barbera sang the lovesick Almaviva with a perfect timbre for the role, high and bright but with lower and fuller resonance, and moving with ease and agility through Rossini’s killer ornamentation. In his final aria in the opera, Barbera cut loose, taking the audience on a wild ride of vocal acrobatics, but never losing control of those headlong dashing notes.

He was matched by mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong. With a substantial sound, her voice seems almost too weighty for the young Rosina, the passionate and playful object of Almaviva’s adoration. But her sound is so beautiful in its warmth and complexity and her technique so flawless that all preconceptions are forced aside. She is a joy to hear. Fabulous!

Rodion Pogossov (Figaro), René Barbera (Almaviva) and Elizabeth DeShong (Rosina) © Craig T Mathew
Rodion Pogossov (Figaro), René Barbera (Almaviva) and Elizabeth DeShong (Rosina)
© Craig T Mathew

Russian Rodion Pogossov sang the title role. He portrayed Figaro as a dapper but good-natured clever cogs with just enough manly swagger. Eager to facilitate Almaviva’s romantic rescue of Rosina, Pogossov marshaled his light and rather lovely baritone through the mind-boggling difficulties of the role.

The characters that are the barrier between the young lovers were wonderfully cast with baritone Alessandro Corbelli as the ancient Dr Bartolo, who strives to claim Rosina and her dowry for his own, and bass-baritone Kristinn Sigmundsson as Don Basilio, his always-corruptible co-conspirator. Sigmundsson’s height had him almost a head taller than the rest of the cast, adding humor and dimension to his presence and his voice, which was mega-big with lots to spare. Soprano Lucy Schaufer sang the housekeeper Berta, who comments on the foolishness of old men scheming after young women, with a strikingly sweet voice. It was all held together under James Conlon’s terrific conducting and the symphony’s sure skills and responsiveness.

Kristinn Sigmundsson (Don Basilio) and Alessandro Corbelli (Dr Bartolo) © Craig T Mathew
Kristinn Sigmundsson (Don Basilio) and Alessandro Corbelli (Dr Bartolo)
© Craig T Mathew

American Director Trevore Ross emphasized the silly and the madcap in Beaumarchais’ hectic plot. And the audience loved it. The couple behind me chortled, guffawed and giggled. The singers seemed to grow more and more comic and absurd as the play’s action proceeded and voices warmed into ease and comfort. Dancers wandered through each scene, adding witty references with fragments of flamenco, calling up the dances named after the city, Sevillianas. Choreography was by Madrileña Nuria Castejón.

That LA Opera has given serious credence to Spanish and Hispanic operas and productions is only one of its innovative and expansive policies. Along with it comes a serious commitment to opera history. The Beaumarchais Trilogy, “Figaro Unbound,” looks to the playwright who was the source of the opera. The program notes tell his history as inventor, courtier, spy, and the arms agent who fed guns into revolutionary colonial America. It was Beaumarchais’ large and democratic vision that spoke to both Rossini and the bad boy Mozart. The political undercurrents of the Figaro operas are often overlooked in the States because the struggles against the monarchy are outside our contemporary experience. The company’s choice of performance as a central means of its educational outreach is especially graceful and to-the-point.

*****