How nerve-wracking must it be to take on the almost impossible task of successfully recreating Rossini’s The Barber of Seville – which, like its instrumental equivalent, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, still miraculously occupies stages today despite its all-too-pervasive fame – and still make it fresh and exciting! Yet how beautifully and effortlessly this happened with Lucas Meachem’s, Renè Barbera’s, and Daniela Mack’s brilliant performances in the revival of director Emilio Sagi’s production at the San Francisco Opera on Saturday! This co-production with Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theater had already seen the San Francisco stage in 2013, but this current version, directed by Roy Rallo, is entirely unique – and a joy to behold, in every aspect.
Self-conscious concern with history and posterity, which dominated Rossini’s 20-year-long career before his early retirement, are highlighted right away by the six-foot tall bust of the composer presiding over the opening scene. Like the character names referencing Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and its own consequent references, this initial staging poses to the audience an already open conversation. None of this is new, since literally everyone has heard the overture before, if not by itself, at least accompanied by Bugs Bunny’s antics. Thus, the opera’s concern would be to play with its ingredients in a captivating way. If the plot is predictable and the musical material is full of self-borrowings and historical references, the goal is always “how” and not “what,” leaving performers and artists with one of the best opportunities to explore the finest of subtleties in staging, shaping, and within-limits, improvising.
And this production certainly takes advantage of these aspects. The “ceaseless and growing” sound of madness that the bubbling music strings together throughout the storyline, was not, however, “reduced to insanity,” but was elegantly and sharply shaped by conductor Giuseppe Finzi. His gestures were bubbling and energetic throughout, as if he were hearing the music for the first time. This tended to remind us that the inner mechanism of all the dazzle in the story line is complex, and controlled by the orchestra, which was constantly spot-on, never missing a note. And of course, all the landmarks were there: Meachem in his role as Figaro was powerful, boundlessly mischievous and hilarious, and the clapping wouldn’t stop for his Largo al factotum. Daniela Mack’s solid, warm tone throughout, even in the toweringly high passages, gave us the perfect mixture of her sly, vivacious and touching portrayal of the daring Rosina. And when not somehow managing to find more breath and endurance for the comically long, ecstatic coloratura from Act II, René Barbera as Count Almaviva did give us a snippet of sweetness in his lovesick duets with Rosina. Ringing even more confidently than in his portrayal of the Prince in Rossini’s other masterwork Cinderella, part of SF Opera’s season last fall, Barbera’s voice fit Mack’s so well that their lovesick exaggerations seemed not just silly, but earnest in their reflection of that universal human search for happiness.
Yet what pulled it all together fully was undoubtedly the staging. The melding from a black and white Seviglian backdrop to a florally decorated version, to a subtly colorful domestic interior, seamlessly led to an explosive finale, where “love and faith eternal reign” in both main characters’ hearts, and where fireworks – and a steel-blue 1966 Jaguar convertible! – brings the opera’s message into contemporary relevance. The internal and external clamor of intertwined goals in the opera’s plot resulted in confusion – reflecting, in Rossini’s time, political and musical change, and in ours, perhaps an excess of stimuli and information. Yet the “riding off into the sunset” – or rather, fireworks, as projected onto a big screen behind the convertible – despite its fragility, is still possible. This eagerness for assurance was physically manifested: the stage gradually gathered color through flamenco-like costumes, props and lighting as the plot neared its conclusion, finally bursting beyond the stage and onto the opera house ceiling and walls with multi-colored splashes. All the Rossinian crescendos did reach their goal, yet it is amazing to hear once more how such teleological music can manage to charm through staticness. In the end, we were all there to experience the delightful complexity of the ruckus, and to see how the breathless excitement and jewel-like beauty of the music would be highlighted. And the answer is: just right.