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Review: Opera Theater’s ‘Barber’ Soars Vocally

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Rene Barbera, Elizabet DeShong and Rodion Pogossov in MOT's "The Barber of Seville."  (Photo: John Grigaitis)

Rene Barbera, Elizabet DeShong and Rodion Pogossov in MOT’s “The Barber of Seville.” (Photo: John Grigaitis)

By Michael H. Margolin, EncoreMichigan.com

Michigan Opera Theatre, debt retired, the future secure, bubbled like fine champagne with wonderful voices in the 42nd season opener. Ford Motor Company again stepped up to the plate as the fall season sponsor, and Detroit is a bit brighter than last year at the same time, when this year’s theme, “Drama in the D,” was sounding more tragic than uplifting.

This production of Rossini’s “Il Barbiere Di Siviglia” – sung in Italian with English Surtitles – updates the 1816 libretto to the generic 1920s in a set imported from Opera de Montreal with costumes created locally by Suzanne Hanna, all quite wonderful but for the awful blue peignoir with feathers for Rosina in her first entrance. But the peacock can be forgiven if one of his feathers is molting as the rest are beautiful.

The inconsistency in styles between the 17th century home of Dr. Bartolo and the costumes is jarring, but the music and the voices blended so well that it harmonized the disjointed scenic elements.

In the pit, Suzanne Mallare Acton led a rousing rendition of the overture, with the MOT orchestra sounding like balm for jaded ears.

In this comic opera of identity theft, young love un-thwarted and police that seemed to anticipate Gilbert and Sullivan (taranta-ra…), director Mario Corradi gave us a take on “I Love Lucy,” a kind of opera buffa that leaned more to buffoon than even Cesare Sterbini’s libretto of 1816.

But, oh my, the voices! In the role of Rosina, the young ward who is being forced into a marriage with the loathsome Dr. Bartolo, American Elizabeth DeShong sounds like a real mezzo with deep, rich tones at the bottom, a marvelous antidote to the run of mezzos who sound like sopranos with a cold. Short, with a mop of red hair – did I say “Lucy,” though maybe it was a wig? – she pouted, made faces and was just so good. Did I mention that her top notes were as fresh and free of static as her low ones?

As her wooer and tenor in disguise, Rene Barbera stoked up his shining voice with all the support needed to loft his notes across the orchestra pit. He didn’t fool anyone in his guise as regular guy Lindoro or substitute music teacher because he sang like royalty, giving away his real persona as Count Almaviva.

As Dr. Bartolo, the always-good Thomas Hammons transcended himself. His performance, the shading of the voice, the projection of the character were all pitch perfect, not one false note – pun intended – and he just about stole the show.

As the jack of all trades, Figaro, who makes the plot spin and secures the lovers their consummation – marriage – Russian Rodion Pogossov was agile as all get out: He tap danced, walked on his hands and juggled, meantime honorably singing the part. As Basilio, Tom Corbeil sang carefully and correctly, though his one aria – a great one about calumny – did not erase the memory of others in that role, notably the late, great Ara Berberian.

Timothy Bruno capably doubled as Fiorello, the Count’s servant, and as the Sergeant/leader of the police; Fred Buchalter as Ambrogio and Jeffrey Wilkinson, the Notary, completed the cast but for one: As the sneezing maid, Berta, Lenora Green turned a small role into a bright cameo with her vivid voice and her attitude – perhaps more 1990s than 1920s, but the audience loved her, and so did I.

But into each life some rain must fall, and I am not referring to the downpour that greeted the audience upon leaving the Opera House. Last year, a re-imagined and enhanced “I Pagliacci” showed how a director, Bernard Uzan, saw a work anew. His emendations made the original better without coarsening or downgrading it.

Each time Mario Corradi tinkers with the libretti, here, as he has in past productions, it serves no real purpose except to put his own stamp on it. Well, as far as I am concerned, his stamp should be cancelled. Usually, at least, he hews to the general intentions. In this “Barbiere,” he took his hatchet to the work and with support (arm-twisting?) of Roberto Mauro, the Supertitlist, he trod on tradition like the Vandals ransacking Rome.

Just one example and I, unlike Corradi, will stop: The music lesson scene is, arguably, the most famous in the opera. Rosina steps forward and sings her heart and lungs out (the choice of music is often the singer’s, as long as it is consistent with the period). For half the time, Corradi put her behind the piano when she should be front and center for her big moment, and then, in the following pastiche when the original libretto has Dr. Bartolo sing a weak, silly rendition of a badly rhymed couplet, Corradi introduces Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” and allows it to drag on for several lines.

Corradi upstages Rosina’s great moment by his blocking and then coarsens the mood with a corny pastiche of his own. This is not invention, creativity or even co-opting tradition for a thoughtful impact; it is self-aggrandizing.

The press release identifies Corradi as “Detroit favorite.” I wonder who did that poll?

For tickets and showtimes, go to EncoreMichigan.com.

Michael H. Margolin reviews local theater productions for www.EncoreMichigan.com, the state’s most comprehensive resource for news and information about Michigan’s professional theaters. Follow them on Facebook @EncoreMichigan.com.

 

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