Los Angeles Opera Music Director and Chief Conductor James Conlon is the champion of his opera company’s “Figaro Trilogy” of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”, Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” and Corigliano’s “Ghosts of Versailles” performed over a two month period that began in early February [See Review: Los Angeles Opera Launches Ambitious New Production of “Ghosts of Versailles” – February 7, 2015.]
The second trilogy offering was Rossini’s greatest work, the unsinkable “Barber of Seville”. (The order in which the three operas are being presented is a consequence of when particular artists were available, otherwise “Ghosts” would be presented third instead of first.)
The Los Angeles Opera production was first performed with two distinguished casts in 2009 [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].
The 2009 production by Emilio Sagi (originally conceived for the Teatro Real in Madrid), the revival staged by director Trevore Ross, is important because it reflects the worldwide movement of Rossini scholarship that has brought forth critical editions of Rossini’s work.
That scholarship has helped produce a generation of authentically trained Rossini singers to take the opera stage, who possess the lighter voices and vocal flexibility needed to sing the roles as written.
I refer to this generation of artists as Rossini Royalty. Such were the Almaviva and Rosina of the 2015 Los Angeles revival, respectively tenor René Barbera and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong.
[Below: Figaro (Rodion Pogossov, left) helps facilitate the marriage of the Count (René Barbera. center) and Countess (Elizabeth DeShong, right) Almaviva; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathew photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Rossini Royalty: René Barbera’s Count Almaviva
The Los Angeles audience attending this performance experienced a more consistently authentic Rossini performance of the kind that top tier opera companies now strive to present.
A half-century ago, relatively few tenors singing the role of the Count Almaviva attempted the elaborate phrases, requiring a rapid movement of the voice, that are an essential component of the Rossini style.
[Below: Count Almaviva (René Barbera) disguised as the student Lindoro; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathew photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Most notably, Almaviva’s great showpiece aria of the final act, Cessa di piu resistere, was everywhere a standard cut. [In the San Francisco Opera’s first 90 years no artist sang that aria before its 2013 season.]
Texas tenor René Barbera has emerged as one of the world’s most accomplished Rossini tenors.
He has conquered the American Southwest with his winning performances of Prince Ramiro in Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” at the Los Angeles [Love All Around for Cinderella, Prince Charming in Joan Font’s Zany Staging of Rossini’s “Cenerentola” – Los Angeles Opera, March 23, 2013] and San Francisco [“Cenerentola” Review: San Francisco Opera’s Splendidly Sung, Sumptuously Staged Cinderella Story – November 9, 2014] Operas.
He also was part of the Santa Fe Opera’s stellar cast for Rossini’s “Lady of the Lake” opera. [See Rossini Royalty: DiDonato, Brownlee, Pizzolato and Barbera in Curran’s Staging of “Donna Del Lago” – Santa Fe Opera, July 26, 2013.]
As Il Conte Almaviva, he sang the legato lines of serenade to Rosina stylishly and dashed off the Olympian feat of the treacherous aria Cessa di piu resistere with seeming effortlessness.
In between, he did what all Almavivas must do, he engaged in the wacky antics that Almaviva disguised a poor student, as a drunken soldier and as a faux music teacher is expected to perform.
[Below: Almaviva (Rene Barbera, second from left, disguised as a drunken soldier, threatens to kill Doctor Bartolo (Alessandro Corbelli, right) with a sword while Figaro (Rodion Pogossov, second from right) and Rosina (Elizabeth DeShong, left) restrain him; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathew photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Rossini Royalty: Elizabeth DeShong’s Rosina
The role of Rosina, written for a lower female voice (mezzo-soprano), was in years past performed in a revised score to accommodate the ranges of lyric coloratura sopranos, whose training at that time better accommodated the fireworks of the aria Una voce poco fa.
In Los Angeles the part of Rosina was sung by Pennsylvania mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong.
[Below: Rosina (Elizabeth DeShong) is determined to defy her guardian’s edict banning her communication with the outside world; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathew photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
In my interview with her [Rising Stars – An Interview with Elizabeth DeShong] in response to my question about singing roles in operas by Rossini and Donizetti, she spoke of the differences, but also stated their operas “all require you to use every tool in your vocal toolbox . . . agility, seamless quality throughout your range, endless colors, breath control, etc. in order to make the characters and music come to life.”
In fact, the resources of DeShong’s “vocal toolbox” were evident throughout the evening. DeShong’s big aria was brilliantly sung, and she acted convincingly, displaying, as a Rosina must, the determination to assert her independence and to have her way.
Figaro and the Other Principal Cast Members
Performance styles have not changed as dramatically for the lower voices as they have for Almaviva and Rosina. The performances of Russian baritone Rodion Pogossov’s Figaro, Italian basso buffo Alessandro Corbelli and Icelandic basso Kristinn Sigmundsson were exemplary of the long tradition of these roles.
The highlight of any Figaro’s performance is his opening aria, Largo al factotum, arguably – perhaps only excepting the Wedding March from Wagner’s “Lohengrin” (and, among many movie fans the Ride of the Valkyries from Wagner’s “Die Walküre”) – the most familiar excerpt from all of opera.
[Below: Figaro (Rodion Pogossov, left, on cart’s ladder) explains his services to the people of Seville; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathew photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Pogossov, whose Los Angeles debut was as Papageno in the Barrie Kosky production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute”, showed mastery of the rapid “patter” of opera buffa comic arias that comprises the latter part of the iconic aria.
Corbelli, whose buffo roles in operas of Mozart, Rossini and Donizetti I have reviewed in Paris, San Francisco, Houston and Los Angeles, showed his own patter skills in the amusing A un dottor della mia sorte.
The part of Don Basilio with its own famous aria La calunnia is a role assumed by many traditional (as opposed to buffo) bassos. Icelandic basso Kristinn SIgmundsson (who also performed in “Ghosts of Versailles”) was a formidable presence in the part.
[Below: Don Basilio (Kristinn Sigmundsson, front), with Rosina (Elizabeth DeShong, right center, rear) looking on, announces he will leave; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathew photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Baritone Jonathan Michie sang the role of Fiorello, who leads the band that accompanies Almaviva’s curtain-opening serenade.
Michie is a versatile artist that one associates with juicy character roles. [For an account of a performance in a larger role, see Susan Graham’s Star Glows in Offenbach’s Sexy, Witty “Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” – Santa Fe Opera, June 28, 2013.]
(Taking on a starring role assignment, Michie has been announced as Papageno in the Los Angeles Opera’s 2016 performances of Mozart’s “THe Magic Flute”.)
[Below: Fiorello (Jonathan Michie, right) leads the street band hired to perform an early morning serenade; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathew photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
In this performance Michie is entrusted with fourteen measures of recitative (in costume, from the conductor’s podium) expressing the same annoyance with Almaviva’s pursuit of women that Leporello expresses of Don Giovanni, with the same determination to quit his service for good.
My vocal score states: “This recitative is never performed.” Los Angeles Opera audiences should know that they are seeing something that virtually no other audiences have the privilege to see. For the record, Michie got a big laugh!
Conductor Conlon’s 42-Year “Barber” Break
James Conlon has instituted a tradition in Los Angeles – presenting a pre-performance lecture before each opera performance he conducts (excepting only each season’s opening night).
Since Conlon is conducting the entire Figaro Trilogy and it is a labor of love for him, much of his lectures is spent on Beaumarchais, the author of the trilogy of plays on which the three operas are based and on the interrelationships of the three plays and the three operas in Conlon’s Trilogy.
He has made a point of Rossini’s “Barber”, which he first saw in 1962 (even earlier than my first “Barber”) being the turning point in his life, inspiring him to pursue a career in musical performance.
When he began conducting a decade later, he said he knew that “Barber” would be one of the core operas in his conducting repertory. However, as it turned out, he has not had a “Barber” conducting assignment since 1973.
As related earlier in the review, it is significant that in the interval between his 1973 performance and his taking up the “Barber” baton this February evening, that Rossini performance has evolved through scholarship and new attention to how the operas should be sung.
Although the aria Cessa di piu resistere was in the score, its length and difficulty made it a standard cut, so that most opera-goers had never seen it performed. Now 42 years later no first rank tenor would take on the role and not expect to sing it at every performance.
[Below: Count Almaviva (Rene Barbera) has shed all his disguises and now asserts his authority, demanding, through his aria Cessa di piu resistere that everyone accept his marriage as a fait accompli; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathew photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Notes on the Sagi production
The 2009 production is a distillation of many of Spanish director Emilio Sagi’s thoughts on the piece. (In 2013 he created a new production for the San Francisco Opera that repeats some ideas and adds others.)
The sets by Spanish scenery designer Llorenc Corbella consist of inventive combinations of modules that are twirled into place from scene to scene by a group of dancers.
In the earliest scene each of the dancers are dressed costumed as a young Rossini, directing the action while moving scenery into place.)
The action takes place in Seville, so the dances of Southern Spain and particularly the Andalusian region are present. Often dancing takes place during the many upbeat Rossini vocal numbers.
Various non-textual characters assist the maid Berta (mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer), when they aren’t joining her in eavesdropping on what Rosina, Figaro and the other principal characters are saying.
In Sagi’s productions the finale is spectacular, with colorful dance costumes and an ascending passenger balloon to mark the beginnings of the Almavivas honeymoon.
[Below: the finale of Emilio Sagi’s production of “The Barber of Seville”; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathew photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
I recommend this cast and production enthusiastically, both for the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera, with special mention of the conducting by James Conlon and of Rene Barbera’s Almaviva and Elizabeth DeShong’s Rosina.