On Friday, September 26, I was in attendance as Opera Philadelphia opened its 40th season with a very new production of Il barbiere di Siviglia; very new because director Michael Shell has updated the setting to a modern-day festival week in Seville. We see clowns on stilts, flamenco dancers, and people in all sorts of traditional costume among the chorus and supers. Mr Shell finds inspiration for this production in the films of Pedro Almodóvar, “giving [the] characters a new depth, which ultimately reveals much more heart and humor” than a traditional production, according to his program notes. I'm not convinced, for that was not what I observed.

Taylor Stayton (Almaviva as 'Don Alonso') and Kevin Burdette (Dr Bartolo) © Kelly & Massa
Taylor Stayton (Almaviva as 'Don Alonso') and Kevin Burdette (Dr Bartolo)
© Kelly & Massa

I'm usually not a big fan of updating, because period detail becomes more a distraction than an asset, and little is achieved in the end. Many operas, including Barbiere, rely on social conditions that are obsolete in the new setting. This Barbiere would definitely have benefited from having a good dramaturg update some of the libretto to navigate around such issues. Dramaturg Kelly Rourke, whose excellent work I've seen at the Glimmerglass Festival, was credited with the supertitles, yet supertitles specific to this production were needed, and these did not seem to be.

I gripe, but there is a lot to like about this production. The Almodóvar-inspired set designs by Shoko Kambara, costume designs by Amanda Seymour, and lighting by Driscoll Otto are stunning, and there are some amusing visual and physical jokes. I loved having Berta's dress match the wallpaper in the Act I finale, and there was a clever bit with a cymbal player in the band that accompanies Almaviva's aria. I liked having a flamenco guitar player on stage to accompany Almaviva's subsequent serenade. I even liked having Bartolo as an eye doctor who is blind to what's going on around him, which some might find a bit heavy-handed. But some of the scenes were a bit too busy for my taste, so that the scenes that are truly meant to be chaotic were not as much of a contrast as they could have been. And I was a bit puzzled by the constant presence of a rooster in one form or another.

I liked all of the singers, and I look forward to hearing more from all of them. As Figaro, Jonathan Beyer brought a resonant tone and comic timing that comes from great training and absolute confidence. A free and even sound throughout his voice and skill at Figaro's patter – even at the very brisk tempi of conductor Corrado Rovaris – gave Mr Beyer's Figaro the vocal bravado one wants to hear from a Figaro. Taylor Stayton's light, agile tenor was perfect for Almaviva. He also had good comic timing, and had a chemistry with both Figaro and Rosina that was a delight. There were a few moments in his “Cessa di più resistere” at the end of Act II when he seemed a bit fatigued, but his high voice continued to ring solid and true. Mr Stayton was the cast member whose coloratura singing suffered the least from the conductor's hectic tempi.

Taylor Stayton (Almaviva), Jennifer Holloway (Rosina) and Jonathan Beyer (Figaro) © Kelly & Massa
Taylor Stayton (Almaviva), Jennifer Holloway (Rosina) and Jonathan Beyer (Figaro)
© Kelly & Massa

This was Jennifer Holloway's first Rosina, but one wouldn't have known it from Friday's performance. Hers is a voice that is smooth and even and free, with glorious high notes and very solid low ones. Her Rosina was confident and cocky, yet vulnerable. Miss Holloway is a beautiful young woman, and it was a pleasure to watch her charm all the men in the cast.

I'd seen Kevin Burdette in Nico Muhly's Dark Sisters several seasons ago, and was impressed with his singing and acting in two quite different roles. As Dr Bartolo, he was pompous and smarmy and weak and lecherous. He reminded me of John Cleese's character Basil Fawlty, with a few other John Cleese characters thrown in when needed. His singing was quite good, and the rapid-fire patter in his Act I aria was breathtaking – again, at an almost break-neck speed. Wayne Tigges as Don Basilio was made up to resemble Salvador Dalí as a lounge singer (excellent hair and make-up design for everyone by David Zimmerman), and even grabbed a microphone at times to call further attention to himself when he could. Another vocally solid and dramatically savvy performance.

I cannot fail to mention the delightful Berta of Katrina Thurman. Berta is more an acting role than a singing one, although Miss Thurman sang and acted beautifully. The Fiorello of Sean Plumb made me think this is a voice we'll hear sing Figaro soon – and I hope often! The thankless role of the Officer was quite capably performed by baritone Johnathan McCullough.

Although the too-fast tempi of Corrado Rovaris sacrificed the coloratura singing, line, and tone of some of the singers at times, I liked his dynamic shaping of phrases and his overall style. Director Michael Shell, whose accomplishments include an Apprentice Showcase at Santa Fe Opera and HMS Pinafore at Indiana University, was inconsistent in his attention to detail and his characters' motivation. There were times when I wondered why some of the characters seemed to be merely standing and singing, neither relating to one another nor in some personal reverie. I've mentioned some of the scenes were a bit busy for me, and the two finales seemed a bit ragged.

Again, I gripe, but would I recommend this show? Certainly! I know it will grow in energy and confidence, and I wish I'd seen the last performance instead of the first.  

***11