New York’s three year old, wonderfully innovative On Site Opera, has scored another success. They move around, molding their operas and productions to the locations chosen: Shostakovich’s tiny Tale of the Silly Little Mouse was given at the Bronx Zoo; Gershwin’s brief Blue Monday found itself in Harlem’s Cotton Club, and Rameau’s Pygmalion was right at home at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum just one year ago.
This year’s presentation, a four-performance run of Giovanni Paisiello’s 1782 Il barbiere di Siviglia, opened on 9 June at the 100 year old Fabbri Mansion just off Central Park in New York. It was built for Edith Shepard, a great granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, and her husband, Ernesto Fabbri; its five stories are severe red brick and stone on the outside but feature stunning Italian Renaissance and Baroque touches and furnishing inside. The first act of the opera was held out-of-doors in the mansion’s courtyard; the audience is moved inside (only about 90 seats are available for each performance) to the magnificent (and acoustically superb) library, which includes panels from the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino, Italy and an Aeolian Organ. The costumes, by Candida K. Nichols, were perfect for the era the house was built, and Eric Einhorn’s deft direction allowed sweet moments for the lovers and good, broad humor for the others, with Bartolo’s servants probably much like the help then. The effect was one of intimacy and “rightness” for Paisiello’s, good-natured score.
Paisiello’s Barber has been, of course, shunted aside by Rossini’s, but it was a success at its St Petersburg première and went on to be played for 21 years in Vienna. It is very different from Rossini’s – the vocal lines are not as acrobatic, the orchestration is not as harmonically inventive, arias tend to be shorter, characterization is not as pointed and, oddly, Figaro and his manipulations are not the focal point – the relationships among the Count, Rosina and Bartolo take center stage. The vocal requirements tend to remain in the middle of voices – there’s nothing here like the Count’s stratospheric requirements in the Rossini – and the plot, characters and voice parts mirror those in Rossini.
Simpler though it is, it has an abundance of charm. The eight piece orchestra – string quartet, guitar (used in the recits as well), flute, clarinet and bassoon under the direction of Geoffrey McDonald – played with verve and expression and in such an intimate space, nothing grander was required. The Count of David Blalock exuded youthful impetuosity, his tenor bright and engaging. His beautiful strophic serenade to Rosina, “Saper bramate” (the tune of which she picks up at the window), was meltingly sung. When he encounters Basilio at the singing lesson, he and the vocally agile bass-baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala, dressed identically, wittily mirrored one-another’s movements bringing to mind Groucho and Harpo Marx. Soprano Monica Yunus sang Rosina with a quick vibrato and gentle demeanor (she is not the minx of Rossini’s opera), and Andrew Wilkowske’s Figaro proved sly and nimble, colored by a handsome baritone voice. Bartolo has much to do and sing, and Rod Nelman’s gigantic bass-baritone and expressive acting filled the bill. Benjamin Bloomfield and Jessica Rose Futran as Bartolo’s servants, had little to sing, but even in their opening trio with Bartolo, in which one yawns and the other sneezes, they were impressive.
This production is part of a three tiered “Figaro Project”: next year will introduce Marcos Portugal’s 1880 The Marriage of Figaro to New York, and in 2017 the opera will be Darius Milhaud The Guilty Mother. There’s good reason to assume ongoing quality and good times.
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