Last night at the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Opera presented the first of five non-subscription performances of Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, revisiting the staging by Emilio Sagi given its premiere performances two years ago. Going strictly by the numbers, one seldom encounters two comedies sharing the opera stage within in the same time frame; but this is definitely the one to catch. This production is sustained by Sagi’s uncanny gift for inventing comic turns, all of which fit Rossini’s lighthearted musical rhetoric like a glove; and, unless I am mistaken, Revival Director Roy Rallo managed to come up with a few new turns of his own without ever upstaging the spirit of Sagi’s work.
Like the other comedy currently sharing this stage, this is the tale of a tenor (René Barbera) who wins the object of his affection with the help of an obliging and cunning baritone (Lucas Meachem). However, that is about the only commonality. While Richard Wagner was inspired by the craft guilds of Renaissance Germany to promote the idea that making music was a craft on the same level, Rossini took his inspiration from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinking of the playwright Pierre Beaumarchais and his influence on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The Barber of Seville amounts to a “prequel opera” for Mozart’s K. 492 The Marriage of Figaro, telling the story of how, with assistance from Figaro (the baritone), the young Count Almaviva (the tenor) wins the beautiful Rosina (mezzo Daniela Mack) and makes her his Countess.
As everyone probably knows by now, in Beaumarchais’ plays Count and Countess do not live “happily every after;” and, if The Barber of Seville is about marriage in the making, The Marriage of Figaro is about marriage on the rocks. The latter was the stuff of intensely human emotions churning beneath the surface level of comedy, a domain in which Mozart excelled. The former is more along the lines of “stock comedy;” and Rossini endowed the stereotypical narrative with freshly spirited music bubbling over with virtuoso turns for almost every character. That left Sagi to provide the framework in which all of that effervescence transferred over to the narrative itself, rather than just the music.
This involved stage action that barreled forward from one exploit to the next rather like one of those chase scenes in a Mack Sennett silent slapstick. Most of the action took place on an elevated platform, providing a crawl space through which both characters and props would emerge when they were needed, the ultimate reductio ad absurdum of the deus ex machina. Meachem played Figaro as the “principal schemer;” but Mack’s Rosina definitely had a mind of her own and was not afraid to exercise it. Barbera’s Alamaviva, on the other hand, knew how to think on his feet; and his major encounter with Don Basilio (Andrea Silvestrelli) breathed new life into many familiar comic tropes. Meanwhile, Alessandro Corbelli portrayed Rosina’s guardian (and would-be husband) Doctor Bartolo with all the necessary irate details to steal a few scenes for himself. That left his maid Berta (Catherine Cook) to tear down the fourth wall before the beginning of the second act while, at the same time, juggling the affections of the manservant Ambrogio, mimed by Efraín Solís. On the musical side the consistently sparkling vocal work was perfectly reinforced from the orchestra pit by Giuseppe Finzi, who had conducted the premiere performances in 2013.
It is also worth noting the Spanish dancers choreographed by Nuria Castejón and prepared by Dance Master Lawrence Pech. They were clearly there to remind us that we were in Seville. However, they also contributed actively to Sagi’s deus ex machina devices and even served occasionally as Greek chorus. They were a delightful reminder that opera ballet work does not need to be superfluous, nor does it need to combat superfluity with contrivance. They were simply additional necessary gears in Sagi’s clockwork conception of the overall narrative or perhaps just the right amount of frosting for his richly layered pastry.