Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Barber of Seville - A Visual Treat





As part of Opera Theatre of St. Louis' 40th anniversary season, it commissioned a new translation of Rossini's The Barber of Seville  from Kelley Rourke.  Of course the story is still the same:  Count Almaviva is still in love (from afar) with Rosina, the ward of prominent Doctor Bartolo and he still asks the local barber and busybody, Figaro, to help him win Rosina.  But the action is now specifically set in Seville during the April Fair and the time period is updated to, perhaps, the 1960's.  It's hard to tell.  The production notes tell us that during the April Fair people dress in costume - including historical costume.  Figaro wears a costume that might not look out of place during the original time period but Dr. Bartolo is in the short sleeves and tie that men wore when I was a child.   Parts of the chorus look like circus performers (including a person on stilts).  While a bit confusing from a historical perspective, it still worked well (far better than many of OTSL's attempts to update operas, especially Mozart operas).

Rosina (Emily Fons) is now the Doctor's assistant, working in his office (he is now an optometrist) and is no longer quite as passive as she has been in past productions.  Fons is making her OTSL main stage debut and has a lovely mezzo-soprano voice with pure diction.  She was a joy to listen to.  Christopher Tiesi, also making his OTSL main stage debut, started out somewhat weakly as Almaviva but as his voice warmed up he proved up to the role.  Both are good actors as well as singers and handled the comedy ably.  The true comedian turned out to be Dale Travis in the role of Dr. Bartolo, a role that I remember in the past as being nothing other than an annoyance.  Here, Bartolo, still schemes to marry his ward while at the same time being obsessed with chickens. 

Yes, that's right.  Chickens.   The production design, which is meant to evoke the films of Pedro Almodovar, is infused with images of chickens as well as chicken props.   The colors are vivid and it took me a while to notice the chicken design at the bottom of the semi-sheer curtain that is occasionally drawn across the back of the stage. 

But it is Benjamin Taylor who stands out as the self-confidant and funny Figaro.  He is unafraid to play the role broadly, which is exactly what it needs amidst all the color and confetti on stage.  And his voice was a delight.   Conductor Ryan McAdams did not let the tempos lag and some of the music is tricky to sing (much less enunciate) in the original Italian far less in the clunkier English.  But he handled it brilliantly.

In fact all of the enunciation was terrific - a far cry from some productions where they might as well be singing in Polish.  I wondered if it might have seemed better to me because we changed our season tickets and are sitting further back this year.   For the last 28 years we sat on the lower level, but on the side.  Last year we tired of regularly not being able to see.  Rather than cancel our subscription, we changed our seats.

Since Tim O'Leary took the reins as the artistic director he hasn't seemed to have made an effort to require his directors and set designers to direct and design for the 3 quarter stage at the Loretto Hilton Theater.  Regularly cast members and often scenery is put at the side of the stage blocking the view of those who sit on the side.  And in fact, this production has a large piece set on one side of the stage during the first scene, filled with sitting singers, blocking the view over there.  This is just laziness on the part of Opera Theatre - certainly the Rep, which stages many more productions in that same theater each year, never has that problem.   And OTSL never had that problem under Charles McKay.

But since O'Leary clearly isn't going to change his ways, we eventually decided to change ours and move our seats.  We also decided to sit center for the first time.  I'd like to be able to tell you it made a difference, but alas I can't.  When we arrived in our seats on Thursday we found ourselves surrounded by 20-25 small children who are part of OTSL's summer camp.  We asked for our seats to be changed and were moved to one of the sides.   After a long day at work when all I wanted to do was sit back and enjoy the music, the last thing I wanted was to be surrounded by other people's children.  Children, no matter how well behaved, are still children.   While I applaud OTSLs efforts to build a young audience, children belong at matinees, not evening performances.  And if they will insist on giving them tickets to an evening performance, season ticket holders should be warned in advance.

Other than having to change our seats, however, the evening was enjoyable and the production was a visual treat.  I can only imagine what it looks like when not looking at it from an angle.