Review: Lucas Meachem, Javier Camarena and Isabel Leonard Romp in Sagi’s Sprightly New “Barber of Seville” – San Francisco Opera, November 13, 2013

San Francisco Opera unveiled in a spiffy new production of Rossini’s most famous opera, “Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville)” . Co-produced with the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theater, it contains the latest thoughts of Spanish production designer Emilio Sagi as to how this most popular of operatic comedies should be staged.

Although mining many of Sagi’s ideas from an earlier production for a group of opera companies including the Los Angeles Opera [see Florez and DiDonato Dominate Los Angeles Opera’s “Barbiere di Siviglia” – December 6, 2009 and Korchak, Coburn and Meachem Illuminate Alternate “Barber of Seville” Cast – Los Angeles Opera, December 5, 2009], entirely new sets were designed and constructed by Spanish set designer Llorenc Corbella.

[Below: Llorenc Corbella’s unit set for Doctor Bartolo’s Seville household, outside of which the “disguised” Count Almaviva (Javier Camarena, center, dressed in white suit and topcoat) serenades; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Lucas Meachem’s Figaro

Appearing in the title role was Lucas Meachem, whose professional training includes both San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program for Young Artists and the Adler Fellowship.

His sumptuous lyric baritone has been enlisted by the San Francisco Opera for two leading Mozart roles, Count Almaviva [Copley Directs, Luisotti Conducts, Sparkling “Nozze” Ensemble – San Francisco Opera, October 3, 2010] and the title role of “Don Giovanni” [Meachem, Vinco, Lead Cast of Imaginatively Staged “Don Giovanni” – San Francisco Opera, October 23, 2011.]

[Below: Figaro (Lucas Meachem, center, atop wagon) reminds the Seville populace of his many professional talents; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Returning to what appropriately should be considered his home opera company, Meachem the artist exuded the level of confidence in his War Memorial Opera House surroundings as Figaro the character does in the streets of Seville.

That confidence is evident in his stage presence, and in his voice that throughout his early 30s has matured and grown in size.

His vocal and comedic skills were put to the test with the showpiece aria Largo al factotum, which contains what is probably the best known phrase in all of opera.

(For more on Meachem and his Figaro, see Meachem, Osborn, Tro Santafe Lead a Joyous “Barber” at San Diego Opera – April 21, 2012 and Rising Stars: An Interview with Lucas Meachem, Part I and Rising Stars: An Interview with Lucas Meachem, Part II.)

Debuting “Rossini Royalty”

The evening was the occasion for two important San Francisco Opera debuts, those of Mexican tenor Javier Camarena and New York soprano Isabel Leonard, playing the Count and future Countess Almaviva.

In several previous reviews I have expressed the opinion that the 21st century has become a Golden Age of Rossini singing, which is a style that differs in important respects from the styles of singing required of the operatic masterpieces of his younger contemporaries Donizetti and Bellini.

[Below: Count Almaviva (Javier Camarena, right) and Rosina, Countess Almaviva (Isabel Leonard, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photgoraph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The beneficiaries of a wealth of musicological scholarship that has created new performance editions of Rossini’s works, and following paths blazed by such late 20th century artists as Marilyn Horne, a new cadre of artists has emerged in the 21st century that I have named the “Rossini Royalty”.

[See, for example, my recent review at Rossini Royalty: DiDonato, Brownlee, Pizzolato and Barbera in Curran’s Staging of “Donna Del Lago” – Santa Fe Opera, July 26, 2013.]

Javier Camarena’s Count Almaviva

The most noticeable change in Rossini singing from what an opera goer would have expected in the 20th century, is the Rossini tenor voice. Rossini expected the tenor to have the vocal flexibility to sing in a florid style in which multiple notes might be sung on a single syllable of a word.  We now call this style melismatic – that we associate with gospel music and especially with the singing styles of several major female pop artists.

Javier Camarena is mentored by another great Mexican tenor, Francisco Araiza, who himself had great success at the War Memorial Opera House, including Rossini performances with Marilyn Horne.

Camarena possesses a voice of purity and beauty. It is perfecctly fitted for the War Memorial, with the flexibility to sing all of the notes that Rossini wrote for his tenors and the vocal weight to assure that every one of the notes can be heard throughout the 3200 seat opera house.

[Below: Javier Camarena as the Count Almaviva, disguised as Lindoro; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Now, any first rank “Barber” Almaviva is expected to sing the great, complex and fiendishly difficult aria in the final scene, Cessa di piu resistere.

Yet, in the entire history of the San Francisco Opera, no artist had sung that aria in a mainstage performance until Camarena did so in this first performance of the new production. (On the subsequent evening, Alek Shrader, his colleague who takes on the role in the alternate cast, became the second tenor to sing it.)

To add to his resounding success of his debut, Camerena (as did Shrader) accompanied himself on the guitar for his serenade to Rosina.

(Rossini had at one point considered naming the opera Almaviva, which, of course, would have changed the order of the solo curtain calls at opera’s end.)

 Isabel Leonard’s Rosina

If the types of voices in fashion for singing Almaviva has changed over the nearly two centuries since “Barber’s” first performance, the role of Rosina  has consistently been associated with the lyric coloratura, whether presented in the opera’s soprano or mezzo version. (The evening’s Rosina, Isabel Leonard resists categorization as either a soprano or mezzo.)

[Below: Isabel Leonard as Rosina; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Leonard, who is 2013’s recipient of the prestigious Richard Tucker Award, showed mastery in this role that has been a mainstay of her early career, dashing off the fireworks of Una voce poco fa with seeming effortlessness.

A graceful actress and winsome comedienne, Leonard was effervescent in the opera’s many ensembles. With early training in dance at the Joffrey School of Ballet and Juilliard School of Music, she even was assigned a few dance steps, adding to the spirit of Director Sagi’s and Choreographer Nuria Castejon’s dance-filled production.

Other Cast Members

The Don Bartolo, Italian bass-baritone Alessandro Corbelli is an internationally respected buffo artist.

[Below: Don Basilio (Andrea Silvestrelli, left) explains the advantages of destroying an adversary’s reputation through spreading false scandal to an interested Don Bartolo (Alessandro Corbelli, right, head covered by a “cloth of calumny”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The always dominant presence of the sonorous basso Andrea Silvestrelli added yet another distinguished performance to his San Francisco Opera performance credits, in a role that shows his comic instincts.

In her 50th role with the San Francisco Opera, Catherine Cook was the snuff-addled maid, Berta.

[Below: a scene from the new production’s second act; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


In this production her boyfriend is the gardener Ambrogio (a mute role, in this production acted out by American tenor and Adler Fellow A.J. Glueckert).

Fiorello, an Almaviva operative who has a much to sing in the opera’s opening sequence, was vibrantly sung by Chinese baritone Ao Li, the 2013 winner of the important Operalia competition.

Adler Fellow Hadleigh Adams, a New Zealand baritone, was vocally strong in the small part of the Officer. Andrew Truett was the Notary.

Giuseppe Finzi, San Francisco Opera Resident Conductor, conducted the San Francisco Opera Orchestra with spirited enthusiasm and an obvious affection for the work.


I recommend the production with either cast without reservation.

Because I am reviewing the first performances of each of the two casts, I will have more to say about the production in the second review.