The Santa Fe Opera revived Rossini’s most popular opera, “The Barber of Seville”, after its 17-year absence from the company, in a brilliant new production by Australian-born British director Stephen Barlow. First performed in 2016 at Britain’s Grange Festival in Hampshire (near Winchester), the production mixes 18th century fashions with abundant references to studiously anachronisitic contemporary fashions and sight-gags.
Joshua Hopkins’ Figaro
In the title role, the Barber, Figaro, was performed by Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins. It is Figaro that the nobleman, the Count Almaviva (performed by Jack Swanson), has bribed (with a briefcase of cash) to assist the Count in pursuing, Rosina, his love interest.
[Below: Joshua Hopkins performs Figaro’s famous aria; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photographm courtes of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Hopkins masterfully negotiated the challenges of Figaro’s showpiece aria Largo al factotum, including its tongue-twisting patter. Hopkins then joined Swanson in a fast-paced duet establishing Figaro’s barbershop location, thus setting up one of director Barlow’s comic escapades.
A chorus of Santa Fe Opera Apprentices appears, some manning six barber chairs, each associated with a letter in Figaro’s name, while other Apprentices are groomed in those chairs. Ultimately, the scene ends with a big production number.
[Below: Figaro (Joshua Hopkins, center) celebrates with his barber shop assistants; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
This was my second opportunity to review a Hopkins performance as Figaro [Review: Zambello’s Zany “Barber of Seville” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 20, 2018]. Hopkins’ flair for the comic baritone roles has been well-established [Review: “Fledermaus” Opens 2017 Santa Fe Opera Festival – June 30, 2017].
Additionally Hopkins’ affinity for contemporary opera has resulted in his creation of the roles of Harry Bailey [World Premiere Review: Jake Heggie’s Celestial Transformation of “It’s a Wonderful Life” – Houston Grand Opera, December 2, 2016] and of Orpheus [World Premiere Review: Matthew Aucoin’s “Eurydice” at the Los Angeles Opera, February 1, 2020] in new operas by Heggie and Aucoin.
For my interview with him, see: Rising Stars – Interview with Baritone Joshua Hopkins.
Jack Swanson’s Count Almaviva
Minnesota lyric tenor Jack Swanson was the Count Almaviva, in a consummate performance revealing Swanon’s attractive, technically proficient vocal skill. At the opera’s beginning, in 18th century regalia acting as the Count himself, Swanson’s Almaviva assembles the musicians he has hired to serenade Rosina.
Before the serenade begins, Swanson disappears, returning as the impoverished student Lindoro in 21st century university sweater, jacket and jeans. In Lindoro’s student attire, Swanson performed Ecco ridente in cielo – Almaviva’s opening cavatina – with heartfelt emotion and vocal elegance.
[Below: the Count Almaviva (Jack Swanson), disguised as Lindoro, is carried on the shoulders of the musicians he has just generously paid; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
This establishes a premise of Director Barlow’s production, that whenever the Count is appearing as the Count himself, he is in his 18th century finery. However, whenever he is disguised as someone else (Lindoro, a drunken soldier, or a substitute music teacher) he appears in 21st century clothing. It is a testament to Swanson’s prowess as an actor that whatever role he is playing – the Count or one of his disguises – he is thoroughly convincing.
To gain entrance to the residence of Doctor Bartolo, of whom Rosina is a ward, Swanson’s Almaviva affects the disguise of a soldier being quartered there (over the strenuous objections of Bartolo himself).
[Below: the Count Almaviva (Jack Swanson) is disguised as a drunken soldier; edited image, based on Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
In the second act, Swanson’s Almaviva returns, stating he is Don Alonso, substituting for an unwell Don Basilio so as to give Rosina her music lesson. In another laughter-inducing sight-gag, Almaviva is dressed like the “Ding Dong, Hello” missionary (Elder Alonso?) from Parker, Lopez & Stone’s “The Book of Mormon“. In fact, Alonso has books with him that he gleefully gifts to Bartolo.
[Below: the Count Almaviva (Jack Swanson) disguised in the form of an Elder from ‘The Book of Mormon‘, arrives to give a music lesson; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Almaviva and the Rossini Renaissance
Perhaps no role from the standard operatic repertory has benefited more than Almaviva from the scholarship of the past three decades on how Rossini intended his operas be sung. Efforts to re-establish an authentic Rossini style resulted in a new generation of Rossini singers who sing the roles differently than their predecessors of the previous century and a half. Concurrently, Almaviva’s role has benefited by the widespread restorations of the music from the “traditional cuts” in the performance scores for “Barber” passed down through the years,
[Below the Count Almaviva (Jack Swanson, right), dressed in a nobleman’s attire, defends his secret marriage to Rosina (Emily Fons, left) that took place with the help of Figaro (Joshua Hopkins, center); edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Almaviva’s role in this production includes a long, very difficult aria, Cessa di più resistere, near the opera’s end (which changes pace with Almaviva and chorus singing the jaunty Ah il più lieto). Even in the first few years of the 21st century, only a few authentically trained Rossini tenors were invited to sing Cessa by some adventuresome opera companies.
Performance tradition has given way to major companies hiring lyric tenors, like Swanson, who have the vocal flexibility and training to sing the aria properly. Swanson’s superb performance deserves inclusion in the first rank of what I call the contemporary “Rossini royalty” [Review: Rossini Royalty Present Brilliant “Barber of Seville” – Los Angeles Opera, February 28, 2015].
Now that the Cessa aria appears here to stay, we are certain to see alternative ways of staging the action that takes place while Almaviva sings the aria (which with with Ah, il più lieto, runs to nine pages in the piano-vocal score). Barlow’s staging brilliantly integrated Swanson’s aria into the fast-paced action. The Rosina-Almaviva wedding not only becomes a fait accompli, but resistence to the marriage disappears.
Emily Fons’ Rosina
Wisconsin mezzo-soprano Emily Fons displayed a lyric coloratura voice with technical brilliance. Fons did justice to Rosina’s great aria Una poco voce fa, in which Rosina reveals her goal of winning Lindoro, while projecting the emotional willpower to take on any man (i. e., Bartolo) who attempts to get in her way.
[Below: Rosina (Emily Fons) performs in the voice lesson; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtes of the Santa Fe Opera.]
The plans that Fons’ Rosina revealed in her big aria are soon put into effect. She conspires with Hopkins’ Figaro and Swanson’s Almaviva (in whichever disguise that Almaviva adopts before his marriage to Rosina is consummated at opera’s end.)
[Below: Rosina (Emily Fons, right) questions Figaro (Joshua Hopkins, left) on what he knows about the man who was serenading her the previous night; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photrograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
I have previously praised Emily Fons’ winsome Cherubinos in Santa Fe [Review: Santa Fe Opera Reverentially Revives “Nozze di Figaro”, June 29, 2013] and San Diego [Review: A Captivating “Marriage of Figaro” Opens San Diego Opera’s 54th Season – October 20, 2018], as well as another Mozart in San Diego [Review: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo Leads Strong “Don Giovanni” Cast – San Diego Opera, February 14, 2015] and a world premieres in Santa Fe [World Premiere Review: All-Star Cast and Crew, Ardent Audience Ovation for Higdon’s “Cold Mountain” – Santa Fe Opera, August 1, 2015].
Kevin Burdette’s Doctor Bartolo
Tennessee bass-baritone Kevin Burdette was a mesmerizing Bartolo. Employing the physicality one expects from Burdette in a buffo role, he was vocally impressive in Bartolo’s big aria Un dottor della mia sorte. Throughout his performance, Burdette achieved something not usually associated with Rosina’s villanous guardian – audience sympathy.
[Below: Kevin Burdette as Doctor Bartolo; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.
Burdette has extraordinary flair for comedy [Review: Susan Graham’s Star Glows in Offenbach’s Sexy, Witty “Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” – Santa Fe Opera, June 28, 2013]. He is equally proficient in intense drama [Review: Hopkins, Norman and Burdette in a Beauty of a “Billy Budd”- Central City Opera, July 21, 2019],
Nicholas Newton’s Don Basilio and Murrella Parton’s Berta
California bass-baritone Nicholas Newton, a 2022 Santa Fe Opera Apprentice, performed the role of Bartolo’s comrade-in-mischief, Don Basilio. Newton persuasively performed Basilio’s aria La Calumnia, which extols the efficacy of slander in countering the power of one’s enemies. He proved to be very funny indeed (as any successful Basilio should) in the quintet Buona sera, mio signore.
[Below: Nicholas Newton as Don Basilio, holding his earphones and walkman; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
I had positively reviewed Newton performances in two comprimario roles on a previous occasion [Streamed World Premiere Review: Joel Thompson’s and Andrea Davis Pinkney’s “The Snowy Day” – A Child-friendly Opera for the Winter Holidays, Houston Grand Opera, December 9, 2021].
Murrella Parton’s Berta
In addition to the quintet of main characters (Figaro, Almaviva, Rosina, Bartolo and Basilio), there is a sixth character, the maid Berta, who not only appears in some of the opera’s ensembles, but has a solo aria, Il vecchiotto cerca moglie, in which Berta performs onstage alone. A stage director has to make decisions about how to integrate this episode, which few would argue advances the plot, into a performance’s fun. Director Barlow decided to make it a very big deal.
Tennessee soprano and 2022 Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Murrella Parton, who had been an eye-catching servant in a couple of previous scenes, entered the stage in her maid’s garb with a vacuum cleaner singing about her lack of opportunity to have enjoyed the attractions of youth.
[Below: the maid Berta (Murrella Parton, center) discovers she has some admirers (Santa Fe Opera dancers); edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Suddenly, four top-hatted male dancers appear in tuxedos to join Berta in a Fred Astaire style dance number. As the dance progresses, Berta rips off her maid uniform to reveal a ballgown. Berta’s scene was one of the evening’s big hits, with Parton (and the dancers) receiving audience ovations.
There was one additional cast member, Georgia bass and 2022 Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Allen Michael Jones, who performed the role of an Officer.
Maestro Ivan Lopez-Reynoso and the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra and Chorus Master Susanne Sheston and the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Chorus
Mexican Maestro Ivan Lopez-Reynoso led a sprightly, fast-paced performance by the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra. Utah Chorus Director Susanne Sheston took charge of the Santa Fe Apprentice Chorus.
Stephen Barlow’s Production and Andrew D. Edwards’ Scenic and Costume Design
References have been made above to Barlow’s staging of the opera, and to the costumes created by British designer Andrew D. Edwards (in association with British designer Rebecca Gunstone).
[Below: Director Stephen Barlow; edited image, based on a publicity photograph, submitted to the Santa Fe Opera.]
Edwards’ principal scenic design was first seen as a curving hedge, that in time became attached to a large structure that rose from under the back part of the stage and then slowely moved forward until one could see the image of composer GIoachino Rossini (to which the hedge – now obviously intended to be his mustache – is attached).
[Below: early in the performance, a structure moves forward onto the main stage, revealing the head of Gioacchino Rossini; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
“Rossini’s Head” has distinctive properties. First, its eyes open to reveal Rosina (and later Doctor Bartolo).
[Below: the right eye of a structure opens to reveal Rosina (Emily Fons, upper right) who establishes communication with Figaro (seated on stage floor, below center) and Count Almaviva, disguised as Lindoro, leaning on mustache/hedge left); edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
The “Rossini head” structure also turns to reveal that its back is hollow and in that space is found the apartments of Doctor Bartolo, in which some of the comedy’s liveliest action takes place.
[Below: A scene from the interior of the “Rossini structure”, showing Bartolo’s home and the characters (from left to right) Rosina (Emily Fons), Bartolo (Kevin Burdette), Count Almaviva disguised as a Soldier (Jac Swanson), Berta (Murrella Parton), Figaro (Joshua Hopkins) and Don Basilio (Nicholas Newton); edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Others contributing to the successful production included Connecticut designer Christopher Akerlind for the lighting, Welsh choreographer Michael Harper for the dancing.
I recommend the Stephen Barlow production of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”, and the Santa Fe Opera, both for the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera.