Review: Korchak, Coburn and Meachem Illuminate Alternate “Barber of Seville” Cast – Los Angeles Opera, December 5, 2009

The Los Angeles Opera, whose general director Placido Domingo is arguably the world’s most dominant personality in grand opera, has become a favorite destination for many of the world’s great artists. Domingo’s casting choices show a keen eye for the best talents in the world, including those who have not yet achieved widespread recognition.

Even so, we live in an era in which there is an extraordinary number of opera singers who possess the great voices we associate with international opera stars and who have mastered the skills nowadays required in opera singing and acting. This abundance of fine opera singers has resulted in a lack of opportunity for all of these artists to perform as often and in as many cities as they would like.

One way to increase the exposure of such artists (and to have artists near by to take over a colleague’s role in an emergency situation) is to create “double casts”, in which each principal role has two artists assigned to it. One cast sings the “opening night” and a specified number of later performances. The second cast will first appear on the second or a later performance.

Twice before in the past year, Domingo and the Los Angeles Opera chose a popular opera for double casting. In November-December, 2008 it was Bizet’s “Carmen” and in  January, 2009 Mozart’s “Die Zauberfloete”.

In November-December 2009, the double-cast opera is the most popular comic opera of all, Rossini’s “Barbiere di Siviglia”. In virtually every role, the artist whose international career is more firmly established, took part in the “opening night” cast. But every artist chosen by Domingo and his colleagues for the alternate cast clearly would have held his or her own in the opening night ensemble.

This website, over the past several years, has chronicled a wide number of opera performances in companies that meet international performance standards. In the course of reviewing this group of performances, I have seen virtually every one of the singers chosen by Domingo for the “Barber” casts and was familiar with the work of the production designer Emilio Sagi. Thus, I  was highly confident that any opera goer attending either cast would almost certainly get a  memorable “world class” performance.

Unfortunately, for a performance reviewer, particularly one whose reviews typically include pictures of the performers in costume surrounded by the production sets, it is often impossible to obtain production photographs of the artists in the alternate casts. In the United States, thankfully, it is not the rule (as it is with some European companies) that only new productions and their casts are photographed. Still, production photographs are a sizable expense for opera companies, and it is an increasingly rare event that alternate casts are photographed.

Personal scheduling issues necessitated me attending the first performance of the “alternate cast” followed 16 hours later by the third performance of the “opening night” cast. This created a not insurmountable problem for my reports on the two performances. I had photographs of the three principal artists in one cast in costume surrounded by the sets, but no equivalent pictures of the other cast.

[Note: subsequently the Los Angeles Opera provided photographs of the second cast also, which have been added to this review. I have left the original photograph selections as well.]

But the production, by Emilio Sagi, had premiered at Madrid’s Teatro Real in 2005 and photographs from Madrid of some of the scenes were available. As I prepared these reports, it seemed best to consider each review to be one half of a two part essay. The Los Angeles audiences will have seen (or have tickets to see) one or the other casts. Only a few will have arranged to see both casts, but some parts of each of these two reviews will be relevant to the other casts’ performance.

The current production continues an association between Emilio Sagi, whose reputation was established in Spain’s principal zarzuela theater and who has designed several productions of operas seen at Los Angeles Opera and elsewhere in the United States. Two of his zarzuela productions have been performed by L. A. Opera – Penella’s “El Gato Montes” (1994) and Torroba’s “Luisa Fernanda” (2007), as was his “Carmen” in 2008. For the revival of Sagi’s production for Los Angeles, his frequent collaborator, Javier Ulacia, was production director.

[Below: Emilio Sagi, who conceptualized the original “Barbiere” production at Teatro Real in Madrid; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

At San Francisco Opera, Sagi is associated with the beautiful production of Verdi’s “Don Carlos” (seen in its Italian version in 1998 and in French in 2003) and was stage director of Verdi’s “Otello” (2004), both productions with elegant sets by Zack Brown. In 2007 his production of Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment” was performed in Houston (See my review at Claycomb, Podles, Banks Shine in Houston “Fille du Regiment” – November 3, 2007.)

El Barbero de Sevilla

One of the characteristics of opera productions associated with both Madrid’s Teatro Real and the Los Angeles Opera, is the lavish use of Spanish dancing, especially flamenco, whenever called for (e.g., the gypsy dances in Bizet’s “Carmen” and at Flora’s party in Verdi’s “La Traviata”.)

Rossini’s “Barber” is not musically Spanish, but the geographical location of its story is Seville,  Andalusia’s capital city, and the flamenco is the most famous manifestation of the Sevillanas dances for which Andalusia is famous. (And, however remote the association, there is a famous zarzuela – Perrin’s “El Barbaro de Sevilla” – about the comic and romantic misadventures of a traveling troupe of singers in a touring production of the Rossini opera.)

There are other Spanish links as well. The bel canto superstar tenor, Manuel Garcia, himself born in Seville, performed the role of Almaviva at the opera’s premiere in 1816. Inspired by Garcia, Rossini had composed “Barber’s” original overture based on Spanish melodies. (Before its premiere, Rossini replaced this Spanish-themed overture with one he wrote for the opera seria “Aureliano in Palymra”, and the former composition was soon misplaced, never to be found again.)

With a creditable case that “Barber” should have a Andalusian tinta, what could one do to produce one? Sagi has approached it in two ways – first by incorporating Sevillana-themed dancing into the opera, and by creating an exterior for the first act designed to represent Seville. But since “Barber” does not traditionally call for dancers, much less flamenco dancers, how to work them into the opera?

Sagi’s ideas about how to do this are ingenious. Fifteen dancers, all skilled in Andalusian dancing, are present throughout the opera, but they have other functions besides their dancing. They move scenery, they arrange furniture, and they act as an audience for any character in the opera who has information to impart. With Los Angeles’ famous flamenco teacher Briseyda Zarate as dance captain, the troupe of 15 dancers, also including flamenco artist Juan Talavera playing the mute role of Ambrogio, appear throughout the opera.

In fact, the dancers first appear during the overture, under the baton of Italian conductor Michele Mariotti. When the jaunty cantabile tune, known to mass audiences through classic Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker cinema cartoons, appears in its E major permutation, a bright full moon can be seen through the stage’s front scrim. As it continues, moonlight appears to flood the stage floor, then a trapdoor opens in center stage and all the dancers come out, each dancer dressed in a black suit of clothes in the style that Rossini might have worn at the opera’s premiere in 1816.

Soon, the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra still performing the overture,  Spanish lighting designer Eduardo Bravo provides us with teasing glimpses of white structures. They are pieces of Spanish scenery designer Llorenc Corbella’s sets, that the dancers are moving into place to create the street in Seville on which Doctor Bartolo’s house is located. Then, as the overture reaches the swirling accelerando of its finale, all the “little Rossini” dancers madly dash in circular patterns, like a swarm of sardines.

Soon we have a full view of the milk white facades of the buildings along a Seville street underneath Doctor Bartolo’s balcony. After Daniel Armstrong’s Fiorello assembles a ragtag group of musicians, a sedan chair carried by two footmen arrives. Out steps Dmitry Korchak, in his Los Angeles Opera debut as Count Almaviva. After taking a swig from a flask, Korchak sings an elegant Ecco ridente in cielo.

[Below: Emilio Sagi’s Act I “Barbiere” sets, designed by Llorenc Corbella, displaying Figaro’s traveling barbershop, as it appeared at the Teatro Real in Madrid; edited image, based on a Javier del Real photograph for the Teatro Real.]

I had first heard and seen Korchak at the Opera National de Paris as Nemorino in Laurent Pelly’s famous production of Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” (For my review, see: Claycomb, Podles, Banks Shine in Houston “Fille du Regiment” – November 3, 2007) and had recognized as an important new leggiero tenor of international rank.

[Below: The Count Almaviva (Dmitry Korchak); edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

In “L’Elisir”, Korchak demonstrated a voice capable of singing roles for which one expects the weight of a lyric tenor, who are not expected to have the flexibility to sing the elaborate coloratura passages that usually only tenors of the lighter leggiero weight can perform.But this production of “Barbiere”, which restores all of Almaviva’s traditionally cut third act music (14 entire pages of the piano score), is an excellent vehicle for demonstrating that Korchak shares with Juan Diego Florez (who stars in the first night cast) the vocal flexibility and stamina to master Rossini’s difficult tenor coloratura roles.

[Below: Tenor Dmitry Korchak  was the Count Almaviva; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of Los Angeles Opera.]

In “Barbiere”, the role comprising the object of Almaviva’s affection, Rosina, was originally written for the vocal range we now call mezzo-soprano and was later revised for the soprano voice. Often, when Rosina sings, the maid Berta sings with her. As a matter of convention (and practicality since the vocal lines that Rosina and Berta sing in the ensembles are assigned to whichever artists have the higher and lower voices) when the Rosina is played by a mezzo, the woman singing Berta is a soprano, and vice versa. The Los Angeles Opera provides the rare opportunity to hear major artists cast in both of the Rosina-Berta pairs.

Coburn has a technically brilliant coloratura soprano voice, used to great success in the title role of Delibes’ Lakme (see my review at Sarah Coburn’s Ravishing Tulsa Opera Lakme – February 29, 2008) and as Asteria in Handel’s “Tamerlano” (see my review at Domingo’s Towering “Tamerlano” Bajazet: Los Angeles Opera – November 22, 2009). Her voice has a warm, appealing vibrato that makes her legato singing a delight. Physically attractive with a flair for madcap comedy, Coburn has the crowd-pleasing showmanship for delivering the trills, cadenzas and other vocal ornamentation needed for Rossini’s Rosina. Her showstopper aria Una voce poco fa was impressively performed.

[Below: Sarah Coburn as Rosina in a Wolf Trap Opera production; resized image, based on a Carol Pratt photograph for the Wolf Trap Opera Company.]

Over the past several weeks, I have seen Lucas Meachem in performance on three different occasions (for reviews, see: The Man Who Loved Women: Lucas Meachem’s Empathetic Don Giovanni – Santa Fe, July 31, 2009 and for his Valentin see Lyric Opera Revives Inventive Corsaro-Perdziola “Faust”: Chicago November 3, 2009) in addition to a lengthy interview with him (See: Rising Stars: An Interview with Lucas Meachem, Part I and also Rising Stars: An Interview with Lucas Meachem, Part II).

The most famous number in the opera – in fact, considered from its familiarity with the general public, in a league only with the Toreador Song from Bizet’s “Carmen” – is Figaro’s Largo al factotum. In Sagi’s conception, Figaro travels throughout town with a mobile cart, as a way of providing outreach of the services provided at his physical barbershop in another part of Seville – the directions to which provides the excuse for the lively first act finale that engages Figaro, Almaviva, and (in Sagi’s production) dancers with images of Seville’s landmarks.

Meachem delivered the patter song expertly, culminating in the “Figaro, Figaro”, that drew an enthusiastic audience ovation. Meachem is a physical comedian who may bring his own touch to any director’s stage business. As an obvious inside joke, he and this cast’s Dr Bartolo (Philip Cokorinos) parodize one of the other cast’s comic routines, in which the physically large Bartolo (Bruno Pratico) belly-butts the physically small Almaviva (Juan Diego Florez) a couple of times in the second scene. In this performance, it is Meachem the Figaro who belly-butts his cast’s much smaller Bartolo.

[Below: Baritone Lucas Meachem was the Figaro; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of Lucas Meachem.]

In fact, the two great buffo roles in “Barbiere” provided opportunities for two singers, always impressive in comprimario assignments, to be seen in “breakthrough” roles. Philip Cokorinos proved to be an extraordinarily effective Bartolo, whose patter song A un dottor della mia sorte is as difficult to sing as it is fun for the audience to hear.

Ryan McKinny, whose performances I have attended at various times this year in Houston and Los Angeles, was remarkable as Don Basilio. In one of the memorable features of Sagi’s production, Basilio delivers the great basso buffo aria La callunia e un venticello standing on a table covered by a room sized cloth.  As McKinny’s Basilio describes the advantages of calumny in destroying an enemy’s reputation, the cloth begins to blouse and bellow so that at the booming crescendo at aria’s end the tablecloth dominates the room.

Another noteworthy cast member is Ronnita Nicole Miller (a mezzo Berta to balance Coburn’s soprano Rosina). With her large voice (she has been picked to play Erda in the San Francisco Opera’s performances of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” in 2011) and comic timing, she enraptured the audience with Il vecchietto cerca moglie, Berta’s often underplayed aria di sorbetto.

[Below: Figaro (Lucas Meachem), Rosina (Sarah Coburn) and Count Almaviva (Dmitry Korchak) dressed for a wedding; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The performance was delightful throughout, but the final scenes made a wonderful performance even more remarkable. Beginning with Korchak singing Almaviva’s spectacular, but rarely performed Cessa di piu resistere (which with its cabaletta and other permutations is an assignment of Wagnerian proportions), all the principals, choristers and dancers assemble for one of the most colorful finales to be seen on the Los Angeles Opera stage – with Almaviva and Rosina leaving ascending in a balloon.

[Below: the final scene in Emilio Sagi’s production of “Barbiere di Siviglia” at Teatro Real, Madrid; edited image, based on a Javier del Real photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Having seen both of the Los Angeles Opera casts, I believe that Angeleno opera goers will find an abundance of riches in whichever cast they attend. The production is praiseworthy and strongly recommended.