From the world-famous overture to Il barbiere di Siviglia, in which everyone has memorable tunes, through the opera’s quicksilver alternations of comedy (mostly) and romance, it is clear that Rossini is in charge. Events, actions, and texts that are comical or witty are equally or even more so in the music. Probably nothing is funnier in opera than Almaviva’s fake priest nasally intoning ad nauseam “Pace e gioia” – but it’s the notes that do it. Don Basilio’s “La calunnia” is a brilliantly slimy text of nastiness, but Rossini’s setting makes it twice as nasty. The rapid-fire conversations, the deliberately endless “Buona sera” scene, and the multi-layered concertato “Fredda ed immobile come una statua” – here, too, librettist Cesare Sterbini gets the words right – but with the music they are truly amusing.

Sage DeAgro-Ruopp (Rosina) and Charles Buttigieg (Fiagro)
© Cory Weaver

Thus the staging and performance of Curtis Opera Theatre’s Barbiere worked best when director Chas Rader-Shieber, responsible for more than thirty Curtis productions, left well enough alone, trusting, respecting and taking advantage of the text and especially the music. Among the best examples were precisely those mentioned above: no gimmicks, slapstick or overacting, with relatively straightforward individual interpretation.

However, there were several exceptions: for example, while singing that tongue-twister “Largo al factotum”, Figaro reduced two customers to baldness: a hirsute hippie who also lost his facial hair, while a primly dressed lady emerged hairless but with a moustache (his?). This got laughter, naturally, but distracted from the aria, a masterpiece of charming self-promotion, deserving extra attention.

Yes, there was a hippie, and the other costumes were more-or-less of that era: opera directors and designers are apparently obsessed with the 1960s, or maybe that style of dress is plentiful and cheap in second-hand shops. The band assembled for the opening serenade (indeed very funny with their conglomeration of instruments, especially the bespectacled triangle-player awaiting his big moment) wore red cardigans with a big “S” lower left (Seville High?); Fiorillo sported a black leather jacket. The triangle-guy switched clothes with white-suited Almaviva, including the glasses, but stashed away the suit and remained in t-shirt and Jockey shorts (Almaviva wore boxers). Dottor Bartolo and Don Basilio (not in the customary priestly garb) wore too-tight suits with too-short trousers, and Rosina a gauzy white long-sleeved top revealing a black bodice, with a huge bow down her back, a yellowish flared skirt and high heels. What was supposed to be a visual statement was just boring, like most clothes in updated productions, particularly mid-late-20th-century ones.

Set and costume designer Jacob Climer created one of the most hideous sights I have ever seen upon entering a theater (no curtain): a harshly shiny red-orange stage-wide wall. It had six doors (later useful) and several small wall-lamps, allegedly the outside of Dottor Bartolo’s house. Who needs a balcony when Rosina can walk along the top of the wall? With the addition of furniture (moved repeatedly by fellows in red-orange jumpsuits) the set became the interior, inevitably with furniture-sight-gags. The movers took turns with Berta in the broom closet. Of course, laughs, but again distractions. Worst: that ghastly color!

Other annoying “shtick” had either Basilio or Bartolo at various times standing against the wall or a door, back to the audience, and Bartolo moved stiffly, almost robot-like, sometimes taking mincing steps. He also showed Rosina Rorschach tests and pointed a peculiar light at her, ostensibly medicinal. Surprise: when the characters were allowed to be themselves as written, their rapports were natural and both humorous and human.

I had been looking forward to hearing baritone Charles Buttigieg as Figaro, having enjoyed his Masetto in March, and tenor Joseph Tancredi, soprano Merissa Beddows and bass Thomas Petrushka as Almaviva, Rosina and Basilio: they had impressed me recently in concerts. I got two out of four, as there were two casts. Buttigieg was a sly but good-natured Figaro, doing the big aria well and showing good interaction with Rosina and Almaviva. His warm voice had moments of tightness that I hope were only temporary.

Almaviva was sung by guest tenor Efrain Corralejo, competent in the role, hitting big high notes, but unpredictable in the florid sections. Sage DeAgro-Ruopp was a perky Rosina, but I have heard her sing and sound better: she did not have the needed agility and her voice at times became shrill. Thomas Petrushka was a wily Basilio with the right bass sound while capable of flexibility. Despite the staging-oddities, tall, burly, sonorous bass Adam Kiss conveyed a blustery yet sometimes-sympathetic Bartolo, with a self-important “A un dottor della mia sorte” and surprising ease in the fast sections.

The Curtis Symphony Orchestra was superb as always, and the energetic conductor Christian Capocaccia seemed attuned to every Rossinian nuance.