Washington, especially the State Department it seems, wants to get back its swagger (sic.) No need to look further than taking a cue from the newly landed stellar body in our midst, baritone Andrey Zhilikhovsky. From the back of the Kennedy Center’s Opera House, his Figaro launched the character’s first clarion notes in darkness under the normally unforgiving balcony, making the audience all but erupt with glee. Then he did indeed swagger down the aisle and onto the stage with such confidence and bravura that there was not a one of us who wouldn’t have laid down our nuclear arms. Respect.
The Moldavian baritone has made a take-notice WNO debut. He may have sauntered in like he owned the place in his opening aria “Largo al factotum della citta,” but he also delivered such lovability in his effervescent, scheming Figaro that you couldn’t help but fall in love with him. It doesn’t hurt that the WNO scouts have seemingly found a young George Clooney. Like Clooney, the guy’s got smarts, class, and looks, and he is funny as hell.
Washington National Opera continues its season with the equivalent of “greatest hits” to rock the place. Rossini’s The Barber of Seville has become one of the most produced and championed comedic operas in the repertory. This weekend the company opens with its own Bernstein Birthday bash, mounting Candide as grand opera.
There is a curious relationship between the two works. Our 20th century composer “rock star” Leonard Bernstein took his inspiration from the wickedly pointed satire by the 18th century’s master of the Enlightenment, Voltaire. Also from that century, Gioachino Rossini plundered from a popular play by Beaumarchais. Both original works used comedy and wit to lambast cultural norms and set the foundation for what would erupt as the French Revolution.
In Rossini’s work, a lot of that political volatility remains under the surface, but the excitement can still be felt in the pulsating score. Revolution was in the air. Not only is the lead voice given to a working class stiff, but Figaro, a barber, easily infiltrates not only the household of Dr. Bartolo, becoming confidant and spurring-on partner-in-crime to the man’s ward, the lovely Rosina; he becomes the friend, aide and abettor to Count Almaviva, suitor to that same Rosina. The aged characters and noble class are either parodied mercilessly or demonstrate that they need help from those below to inject vitality and success in their enterprises. It’s Figaro’s conquest we cheer.
We have praised the performance of Zhilikhovsky, but there are other delightful surprises in this Barber. Isabel Leonard, who sang the lead in WNO’s Cinderella in 2015 has returned to sing Rosina with a sound that seems effortless in the high notes and with a more centered warmth and richness throughout. She made specific every trill with an intelligence and charm that enabled me to follow every beat. She also updated the character into a young woman – modern, restless, cheekily disrespectful, and absolutely believable.
Bass Wei Wu is also back. I confess I didn’t even recognize this man in the role of Don Basilio, he was physically so transformed and loose. The power of his voice and sure diction continue to arrest attention as in the wonderful aria (and how timely) on slander, “La calunnia.” What astounded me more was his innate sense of comedy.
The whole cast was funny in a way few comedic operas really tickle my funny bone. The entire ensemble looked like they were having a ball. Part of the game was how each of them could mimic and make fun of the other characters, and they were not above selectively changing registers or making less than lovely sounds to score points and send out zingers.
Hats off to director Peter Kazaras, who in 2016 demonstrated in his WNO’s direction of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (also based on Beaumarchais’ trilogy) his ability to stage operas with plenty of inventive business. In that production he showed a kind of restraint; here he has egged on the entire ensemble into shameless but wonderfully appealing chaos.
What a treat it was to see opera singers neither force hamminess nor take themselves too seriously. It truly is a romp for all.
Kazaras has found a wonderful sidekick in this endeavor with choreographer Rose Mercedes. I couldn’t help but notice there was some funny business lifted from the Marx Brothers, notably Duck Soup.
Indeed I was struck by how the whole opera was directed – as Rossini’s music would indicate – a breathless afternoon at the race track. Starting with the overture, conductor Emily Senturia, sets up the mood of anticipation – alert and fast but never bombastic. Then characters are introduced, here and there with some nice little showmanship and individual prancing, but it’s only when Rossini releases them all out of the gate and they interact with each other musically and physically, that these performers turn on the juice.
Rossini hits his groove when he brings singers together in duet, trio, quintet and even sextet compositions. The singer-actors respond in kind when they are allowed to play off each other.
Taylor Stayton, for instance, as Count Almaviva was almost tentative in his first aria, Ecco ridente in cielo, serenading Rosina. But he soon warmed up and seemed to get better and better. His work with both Zhilikhovsky and Leonard powered up his game vocally and theatrically. In one scene he veritably prances and twirls as a stand-in music teacher, and he and Paolo Bordogna become consummate clowns mirroring each other’s antics.
The Barber of Seville
closes May 19, 2018
Details and tickets
Bordogna knows just how to flesh out the stock old father figure that comes straight out of the tradition of commedia del’arte. The guy dove into the patter arias as if he was born doing speed delivery. He moved from hand ringing and knee quivering to exaggerated pratfalls.
The audience delighted so in his energetic buffoonery that it was almost possible to overlook the more sinister implications of his hoarding Rosina all for himself. Comedy has historically functioned to address a community’s ills, so might we consider this opera as a necessary purgative and way to laugh at and disempower horny old men who think their sexual mis-conduct are welcome overtures to the young, beautiful, and restless? Ah, MeToo.
There were two other clowns who deserve mention. Alexandria Shiner as the maid Berta used the size of both voice and stature to the great delight of the audience. The role of her much smaller partner, Ambrogio the Butler, was filled to perfection by the non-singing Matthew Pauli. The two nearly stole the show a few times.
Speaking of scene stealing, what a showstopping chorus line of toy soldiers marched on! And they just kept coming.
The set (Allen Moyer) like the lighting (Mark McCullough) were ever at the service of the highly agile and entertaining performers. Who had time to stop and take in the scenery? There was a horse race going on, and everyone thundered down the finishing stretch.
At the end, as in the beginning, Figaro is indeed ready at everyone’s service to fix all our problems. Oh, Lordy, is Washington ever in need!
The Barber of Seville. Composed by Gioachino Rossini. Libretto by Cesare Sterbini. Directed by Peter Kazaras. Conducted by Emily Senturia. Choreography by Rosa Mercedes. Set Design by Allen Moyer, Lighting Design by Mark McCullough. Costumes Designed by James Scott and additionally by Timm Burrow. Hair and Make-Up design by David C Zimmerman. With Christian Bowers, Paolo Bordogna, Isabel Leonard, Matthew Pauli, James Shaffran, Alexandria Shiner, Taylor Stayton, Wei Wu, and Andrey Zhilikhovsky. Produced by Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.