Never has the expression “A good time was had by all” been more accurate than at Tuesday night’s performance Il Barbiere di Siviglia at Centennial Hall in Haverford, Pennsylvania. Almost from the moment the overture concluded (and what a splendid overture it was!), chuckles and chortles and belly-laughs erupted from the audience because of the onstage antics of the resident artists of the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA), a premier opera training academy based in Philadelphia.

Members of the AVA chorus © Paul Sirochman
Members of the AVA chorus
© Paul Sirochman

It wasn’t difficult to discern that the cast, all rising stars in the opera world, had a rollicking good time themselves that night, hamming it up and mugging shamelessly for laughs. The Rossini melodramma buffo in due atti, based on a farcical play of the same name by Beaumarchais, was triple-cast – a regular practice at AVA productions, to allow more budding artists as many opportunities as possible to develop as performers. And perform, they did.

Even if you know the plot – a classic story of infatuation, misguided devotion, exploitation, and mistaken identity, aggravated and manipulated by the meddling busy-body Figaro – it’s the stage interpretation of the classic opera each time out that makes it fresh and worth anticipating.

The AVA is more likely to present any given opera in period. No Regietheater for this East Coast opera company. This version, directed by Marc Verzatt, was conventional in concept but a bit untidy in execution, though I was thrilled by the balance between the singers and orchestra. In the past, the vocalists tended to be overpowered. Under Richard A. Raub’s baton, the balance was perfection, the singers triumphed, and the audience was the ultimate beneficiary.

It’s always entertaining at AVA productions: I have fun discovering which resident artist will be playing which role in each new show presented by the young troupe. I was thrilled to see mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams singing the leading role the night I was in attendance. I have enjoyed her performances with AVA for years now. I had just seen her turn in a breakout performance at Glimmerglass Festival this past summer. Tuesday, she was utterly breathtaking as Rosina – poised, polished, in complete command of the vocal calisthenics the role demanded. Judging from the applause each time she sang, she was a crowd favorite early on, and deservedly so. More so than any other performer that evening, you could tell that Ms. Williams is but a hair’s breadth away from a glittering professional opera career. She is a joy to listen to and watch – the complete package – whom I have no doubt will be gracing the great stages of the world upon the conclusion of her studies with AVA. She defines di qualità.

Many of the other artists were fun to watch and hear, especially in the lush duets and trio in Act I. Truly, AVA resident artists are all accomplished singers, every time out. However, the first act was so strong that Act II was a bit anti-climatic by comparison. Despite a noble attempt, Act II could not top the vocal impact and hilarity of Act I.

Besides the captivating Ms. Williams, other standouts in the third cast included 2005 AVA alumnus and baritone Jason Switzer as the calculating Dr Bartolo and bass Patrick Guetti, whose side-splitting performance of the aging music master Don Basilio reminded me of an escapee from Bedlam.

While the music is beloved, their 2012 Barber wasn’t my favorite AVA production. Farce needs levels, and I think the director neglected that point, to the show's detriment. It was, however, a fun and frothy production that many audience members thoroughly enjoyed, judging from the cheers at curtain call.

***11