The final production of the San Francisco Opera’s fall season was a new staging of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, advertised everywhere as The Barber of Seville. The use of the English title in all of the company’s advertising for performances in the original Italian may either be a sign of the times or a nod toward the two performances later in the month intended for families which will be abridged and sung in English. Rossini’s comedic masterpiece will command the stage here throughout most of November, with several back-to-back performances necessitating double-casts for the principal roles. The company experimented with this format last season with Rigoletto and Tosca, but there has been no word yet on whether the strategy helps or hinders box office. Thus far the company has succeeded in presenting attractive alternating casts to ward off hierarchical designations of A and B teams, but comparisons are natural and, for the regular opera-goer, part of the fun. I heard the opening night cast.

sabel Leonard (Rosina) and the San Francisco Opera Chorus © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
sabel Leonard (Rosina) and the San Francisco Opera Chorus
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

An all-Spanish production team of director Emilio Sagi, set designer Llorenç Corbella, and costume designer Pepa Ojanguren have attempted to fashion a crowd-pleaser with their vision for Barbiere. Sagi’s unifying concept for the show is a gradual introduction of color from black and white settings and costumes at the beginning to an explosion of color in the final scene. I found this more interesting as an idea than as the actual governing theme for this particular opera, and I struggled to understand what Sagi’s concept of accumulating pigment had to do with Rossini’s work. Barbiere is delightful and spontaneous throughout, characterized more by a momentum that is established right off and sustained through brilliant music and great comedic performances. The gradual lead up to the “big reveal” seems designed for some other opera.

Sagi chose to stage the opera’s famous overture with dancers circling a six-foot tall bust of Rossini. As with most productions that raise the curtain during the overture or prelude, this gesture seemed to reflect a distrust of the opera, the audience, or both. A more significant miscalculation was the decision to use pellets during the rainstorm of Act II. The pictorial effect made for a convincing storm, but it later required Berta and Ambrogio to methodically sweep the crunchy particles from the stage with push brooms during Almaviva’s most difficult and heroic aria.

The Figaro of baritone Lucas Meacham displayed a hefty voice and winning manner in his entrance aria, “Largo al factotum”. Perhaps giving away the store too early, Meachem revealed the powerful, resonant possibilities of his voice at the beginning, leaving few vocal surprises for the audience during the rest of the performance. On the other hand, Mexican tenor Javier Camarena sang Almaviva with an accomplished understanding of his part, keeping his characterization fresh throughout a long evening. His opening serenade was sung with beautiful tone and a legato that utilized each breath perfectly to phrase and carry the line. His singing of coloratura passages had a machine gun-like evenness that was much more technical, compared to his elegant way with Almaviva’s lyrical passages. Besides a remarkable exhibition of endurance and skill in his final aria “Cessa di piu resistere”, I was impressed by his extraordinary guitar playing in the second serenade of Act I. Tenors who accompany themselves during this scene are rare enough, but Camarena showed an idiomatic flair in his playing that suited the Spanish surroundings.

In her San Francisco Opera debut as Rosina, Isabel Leonard brought much-needed vitality into the production, which would have sagged otherwise. Leonard’s confidence and panache, not to mention her extraordinary physical beauty and rich yet fleet mezzo-soprano voice, enlivened every scene she was in. Her “Una voce poca fa” and “Dunque io son” were flawlessly rendered, but it was Leonard’s talents as comedienne, ensemble player and occasional Flamenco dancer that truly elevated the entertainment and comedic qualities of the performance.

Alessandro Corbelli, an experienced Rossinian, brought his accustomed skill to the role of Dr Bartolo. The vast difference in height between the diminutive Corbelli and towering Andrea Silvestrelli as Don Basilio, provided material for at least one genuinely funny sight gag. Veteran mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook nearly stole the show as the nosy nurse, Berta, flirting with her slightly thick-headed lover Ambrogio (played by current Adler Fellow tenor A.J. Glueckert) and singing her sole aria with style rather than overblown manner. Cook’s contribution was greatly appreciated and elicited many laughs. Resident conductor Giuseppe Finzi led the orchestra and singers with a capable hand not disposed toward ostentation.