Washington National Opera, generously sponsored by Mars, Inc, has created what may be Washington’s most terrific recent tradition – “Opera in the Outfield.” There were 10,000 people reported to have been in the National’s Park, home of the Washington Nationals, last Saturday night. Many decided, as I had with friends, to picnic on the lawn, and it felt like what opera once was and should be again – a popular family entertainment, where people can come together to laugh, clap, and go away humming the tunes.
And it seemed so darn American – bringing the best of us together, in that quintessential way our national pastime of baseball does. There were young and old, couples of all kinds, and families with children of all sizes. Some dressed up (in costumes that is,) and some dressed down. Some came for a night of great classical singing, and many arrived who had never been to an opera production. Amazingly, after this week we beheld, no one yelled, except to say, ”Bravo!” No one bullied anyone else, except a clownish commedia stock villain “guardian” of a young ward, who was laughingly outmatched from the onset.
Washington National Opera has been serving up its annual, free community opera night for a few years now. In the past, it’s been produced, like the Metropolitan Opera series, in movie theaters across the country streaming of live productions. This year, WNO offered something a little different, a well-edited version of a production that proved its worth in live performance to be a popular triumph. This was, to my mind, an excellent decision.
Vivian, possibly the youngest patron present was with her parents, both wearing Nats caps. I was assured she was devoted to opera. The picnicing family, which included Chloe, Savannah, Olivia, Noel and Davon, all confessed to the fact this was their first opera. But they were excited and enthusiastically stayed though the entire event.
I reviewed this production of The Barber of Seville last season. Beginning of May, the show opened at the elegantly appointed and accordingly priced Opera House at the Kennedy Center. David Kazaras, who has a deft hand in staging lively, spirited, and comedic operas, impressed me also by his gathering of a star-studded cast who make singing the dizzying notes of Rossini like — well, a walk in the park. Ballpark that is. A Rossini Opera in the Outfield was a dream meant to be.
Do you know how big that ballpark is? When you’re down on the green turf, and looking back to home plate, you get some idea of what it takes to hit a home run. Well Saturday night the Barber and his merry band of cheeky characters hit their own – right out of the park!
Boy, was it fun! Just to let you know how far Washington National Opera had let its hair down, the evening started out with Bugs Bunny. Yup, ‘dwat wabbit,’ became a featured performer in the cartoon spoof entitled “The Rabbit of Seville.” Additionally, at the entrance, young and old patrons were given glow sticks, so as the September light faded and conductor Emily Senturia took to the podium (on screen,) many joined in conducting the famous racing overture. Soon the entire ballpark was aglow with waving pink, green, yellow and violet lights.
I remember what I had written in May about The Barber when Andrey Zhilikhovsky, the Barber, made his entrance. “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.”
Well, here Zhilikhovsky was again, only this time hugely on the main screen in true HD Opera fashion, up close and personal. Every one of us was treated to the equivalent of the best seat in the house.
Seeing the Moldavian baritone charmingly win over and manipulate the entire action of the story, it was as if every woman’s favorite gay hairdresser was paying house calls to dish the latest gossip, while doing a quick manicure and performing a miraculous “up do.” You see, Figaro, a barber, infiltrates himself into the household of Dr. Bartolo, becoming the confidant of both the lovely Rosina and a friend and aide to Count Almaviva, suitor to that same Rosina.
Isabel Leonard is the love interest Rosina, and even more ravishing in face and sound than I had remembered. But even more, she proves throughout the opera to be a comedic actress of spunk and thoroughly modern cheekiness, a songbird who will not be caged or compromised. When she sticks her tongue out the side of her mouth at her patron/guardian, we want to howl with appreciative laughter to show that we are on her side. Vocally, Leonard is not afraid to create a less-than-beautiful punctuation then climb back up to her songbird-trilling perch.
Bass Wei Wu treated me once again to a consummate performance of ringing out astounding low notes while delivering a marvelous physical characterization of Don Basilio, music teacher and meddling marriage broker.
I was floored this time by the performance of tenor Layton Taylor Stayton. Although I had seen him perform opening night, suddenly his Count Almaviva on screen had ratcheted up to pure gorgeous singing and believability. This guy became an inspired whirling dervish. At one moment, in the disguise of a substitute music teacher, he arrives on the scene and becomes as agile as Baryshnikov in his ronds de jambes and pirouettes.
His work as a singer-actor of sublime shamelessness is met and surpassed only by Paolo Bordogna, the foolish narcissistic guardian who has the misguided notion he has the looks and goods to catch and keep his beautiful young ward happy. Stayton and Bordogna become consummate clowns in their rivalry.
The entire ensemble of singer-actors on screen show opera at new dizzying heights of theatricality. Clearly coached by direct Kazaras, they divinely egg each other on into comedic “turns”, with individual playful lazzi or ‘noodling.’ Seeing on screen the nuanced expressions and exquisite realization of choreographed numbers made me appreciate all the more their simultaneous singing at relentless speed – first a trio, then quarter, quintet and finally the full ensemble in what can only be described as a hand dance of Broadway proportions. This ensemble rocks!
Encore, WNO, “ take me out to ball game. Buy me some –“ Figaro!
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.