Flying across the Pacific to San Francisco from Melbourne seemed so much easier than the 2-hour public transport trek it took to get to Livermore, a pleasant city of close to 100,000 residents located on the eastern edge of California’s San Francisco Bay Area. It felt a world away but even though the place was unknown to me, seeing one of opera’s most popularly performed works there brought with it, as cultural pursuits can do, a welcoming sense of connection. The infectious comedy and chaos that Livermore Valley Opera highlighted in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville might have a little to do with that, for there I was, drawn into and chucking along with its astutely detailed comic charms and characterfully sung characters as part of a collective spirit that said it all.
Despite its scale, Livermore Valley Opera had quite an offering to applaud. Not only was Rossini’s 203 year old work thoughtfully staged in its original 18th century Seville setting, a professional cast with depth of experience made certain it fired on all fronts. Director Robert Herriot had a few fabulous tricks up his sleeve as well, ensuring that even anyone with an umpteenth count of seeing it in various productions would encounter newness within.
In Herriot’s hands and the energy of the cast, the characters - Figaro and Fiorello, Count Almaviva and Rosina, Bartolo, Basilio, Berta and Ambrogio - were enlivened splendidly with each of the cast bringing their own quirks and style of humour. Here and there, hamming things up to the point of individual showiness got the laughs too but came at the expense of character interplay. Nonetheless, the entertainment flowed.
It's a long and crazy day at the Bartolo household. The suspicious old Bartolo, young Rosina’s guardian, wants to marry her. And it needs to be that evening because he’s afraid Count Almaviva will get to her first. While he plots with Basilio, little does he know that a disguised Almaviva, with the help of master schemer Figaro, manages to enter his house first as a soldier and then as Basilio’s student in order to come face to face with Rosina. She’s already fallen for Almaviva and believes he’s a poor student but once misunderstandings and temperaments clear, consensual love wins the day.
Two-time alumnus of the Merola Opera Program Alex DeSocio moved with suavity and sang with appealing individuality as the jack-of-all-trades and loveable Figaro, his charismatic and molten baritone perfectly prepared to impress and entertain. As an athletic and venturesome Almaviva, Grammy Award winning toasty warm tenor Thomas Glenn sang from the heart with high-flying lines deployed with intelligence and care. Lush mezzo-soprano and a coloratura class-act, Metropolitan Opera artist Shirin Eskandani worked circumstances brilliantly in pitting coyness against sassiness as Rosina.
Seasoned smoky bass-baritone Peter Strummer’s comedic flair and timing served a treat as a paunchy and plodding Bartolo. Bass Kirk Eichelburger dripped and bellowed the text to a marvellously cavernous and resonant depth as a gaunt, ghostly and red-nosed alcoholic Basilio. And when she wasn’t screaming insanely down the passageway, Deborah Rosengaus showed off a soaring mezzo-soprano as an often stern and condescending-eyed Berta. Smooth and dusky baritone Ryan Bradford opened the night to set the high standards as Almaviva’s obliging servant Fiorello while mustering a dreamy-voiced chorus of serenaders and Robert Canning was a dumbfounded endearing sort as the benefactor of Berta’s unleashed lust in the non-singing role of Bartolo’s servant Ambrogio.
In the pit, tempos meandered occasionally but Rossini’s melodious energy resounded in bursts of numerous highlights under conductor Alexander Katsman. Act 1’s cacophonous finale was a splendid sight and sound as stage and pit came together for the confusion that unfolds in slow-motion and frozen phases, as was Act 2’s instrumental interlude during which the thunderous music brought full effect to the night scene change from interior to exterior and back again.
Little details like flashes of light on the tiled roofs as part of Frederic Boulay’s projections added to the classic but evocative staging - sets by Jean-François Revon, costumes by Loran Watkins and lighting by Sean Russell. A decanter that provided enormous quantities of whisky to assuage circumstances (which Basilio couldn’t keep away from), Berta’s Act 2 aria as she takes the shaver to her top lip, Almaviva’s Act 1 aria costume change from count to soldier behind Figaro’s umbrella and lots of emphatically rolled Italian ‘r’s won’t be forgotten easily. Now that I’m acquainted with Livermore and what Livermore Valley Opera are doing, I’m hoping I’ll be able to get back next season.
The Barber of Seville
Livermore Valley Opera
Until 17th March 2019