Gioachino Rossini’s bel canto gem “The Barber of Seville” brought positive vibes to this year’s Princeton Festival in an appealing new staging. The summer performing arts series began on June 9 and runs through June 25 on the picturesque grounds of Morven Museum & Garden.
The key to Rossini’s peerless opera buffa is to laugh and enjoy the show, and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra succeeded at the sold-out June 18 performance I attended. There will be one more performance, June 20 at 7 p.m. at the venue’s open-air performance pavilion.
Rossini’s masterwork was inspired by Beaumarchais’ 1775 play “Le Barbier de Séville. The two-act opera, set to Cesare Sterbini’s charming Italian libretto, premiered in 1816. The Spanish nobleman Count Almaviva enlists the barber, Figaro, to pry his true love Rosina away from her brutish guardian, Doctor Bartolo.
Rossini’s score is full of brilliant, scintillating music with a keen sense of rhythm. Conductor Rossen Milanov highlighted the orchestra’s mellow, rich tonalities but was thrifty with Rossini’s texturing and the score’s brighter articulations, particularly in the riotous Act I finale.
Rossini was one of the greatest composers of the bel canto repertoire. He wrote uniquely and innovatively for the voice. His difficult, demanding coloratura passages feature hairpin curves, trills and high notes. His singers need pristine technique. The cast rose to the challenges, but decorations and ornaments were kept at a minimum and voices were amplified.
Director James Marvel moved the action from the 18th century to the early 20th century, referencing the Cubism movement with a backdrop painted in the style and palette of Georges Braque. A colonnade of striped barber poles alluded to Figaro’s trade. Costumes and hairstyles were a mélange of tweed suits, button-up dress shirts and bowties with pork pie hats.
Nonstop slapstick comedy turned buffo into buffissimo. Farcical and bawdy humor was modeled on silent film gags such as cartoonish foot stomping and vigorous handshakes. The Princeton Festival Opera Chorus showed great stamina in the supportive roles of music players, servants and soldiers.
Cute anachronisms captured Marvel’s humorous vision and made for laugh-out-loud moments. Almaviva and Figaro danced the Macarena in unison during the “All’idea di quel metallo” duet to symbolize their agreement of Figaro’s proposal. During the Act II music lesson, Figaro and Bartolo briefly slipped on black face masks after Basilio excused himself under the guise of scarlet fever. And after Basilio finally left, an exasperated Bartolo exclaimed “Oy, gevalt!”
Marvel added a fun tweak to “Contro un cor che accende amore.” After Almaviva’s part of the duet was cut off by the awakened Bartolo, Rosina picked up the last Italian word he had sung, “Giubilerà,” and added her own improvisational, Beyoncé-style breakdown to distract the addled guardian.
Rossini’s comical roles allow for such broad, inventive liberties, but when it comes to bel canto singing, it’s all about the beauty of the voice. At times, Marvel’s direction handcuffed this, particularly with Almaviva (played by Nicholas Nestorak), one of the finest tenor roles in the bel canto repertory. Though Rossini’s opera is buffa, Almaviva is a serious character with significant arias. His character becomes “buffa” through his disguises: the poor student Lindoro; a drunken soldier; and Don Alonso, a priest and voice teacher.
In the Act II music lesson, Marvel gave Almaviva (as Don Alonso) a lateral lisp. The speech impediment made him unable to pronounce the letter “S,” so he blew sloppy, wet raspberries for every “S” during his recitatives and ensemble songs (except when he spoke to Rosina as “Lindoro.”) For example, “buona thhhhera” for “buona sera,” accompanied by a robust farting noise for the “th” in “thera.”
Almaviva’s opening aria, “Ecco ridente in cielo,” is notoriously tricky, full of emotional and dramatic intention in every line. Nestorak launched some lovely notes between consistent vibrato — and his rich voice made for pleasant recitatives — but it wasn’t agile or expansive enough to hit the top notes of Rossini’s coloratura fireworks. Fittingly, “Cessa di più resistere” was cut from this semi-staged version. In the commanding final aria, Almaviva reveals his identity and asserts himself as Rosina’s true love, a feat of bel canto virtuosity that few tenors can pull off.
Mezzo soprano Kelly Guerra brought rich color and shading to the primadonna role of Rosina with a sunny disposition and a mischievous, tomboy swagger, never cowering or sulking from Bartolo. In Bartolo’s “A un dottor della mia sorte,” she mocked his pomposity behind his back and chased him around with his own cane after he threw her over his lap and playfully spanked her.
She gave nice shape and phrasing to “Una voce poco fa” with her glowing, expressive mezzo, clean at the top with a profoundly smokier bottom. Runs and trills showed good agility. A high-spirited “Dunque io son…” was marked by sweet geniality with Figaro, sung by baritone Andrew Garland.
In Figaro’s famous entrance aria, “Largo al factotum,” Garland strutted onto the stage with Elvis hip thrusts, and moved effortlessly from top to bottom voices with smooth, warm color. His Figaro was winning and charming.
Dressed as a dapper Southern Italian Don straight out of a verismo opera, Steven Condy added dimension to Bartolo, balancing the character’s buffoonery with glimpses of deeper humanity. His “A un dottor della mia sorte” was sung in an adaptive, charismatic baritone.
Bartolo just wants to find a good woman to marry, and he does so in the finale by putting a ring on Berta, sung by Kaitlyn Costello-Fain. Costello-Fain provided extensive comic relief as Bartolo’s acrobatic old maid. During her “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie” aria sung in a bright timbre, she climbed onto Bartolo’s desk and jumped to the floor, landing in a full split.
Eric Delagrange was Rosina’s hypocritical music teacher, Don Basilio, sung with a beautifully toned and resonant, lyric bass. He played the small but sinister role brilliantly as an absolute lunatic, eccentric and animalistic, reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s haunted protagonists.
Cody Müller displayed an expansive range of character, acting through three demanding and memorable roles — Fiorello, Ambrogio and the Police Sergeant — with a full-sized, vigorous voice to match his towering stature. He brought great physicality as Ambrogio, Bartolo’s doddering servant with a shock of disheveled white hair, in tribute to former Princeton resident, Einstein.
Though this production was light on bel canto sparkle, Marvel captured the fun spirit of Rossini’s classic opera buffa.
For more on all Princeton Festival presentations, visit princetonfestival.org.
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