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A 'Barber of Seville' Full of Laughs and Other High Notes

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When LA Opera presented Rossini's La Cenerentola a couple of years ago, musical director James Conlon wrote in a program essay that he'd also like to tackle The Barber of Seville again some time. We said back then that we'd be looking forward to it, and the company's current production of the bel canto classic, with Conlon at the baton, fully justifies our anticipation.

Pure comedic entertainment from beginning to end, The Barber of Seville has a fairly straightforward plot, but a madcap, almost anarchic, sensibility. The current LA production, a Spanish-Portugese import, very enjoyably plays up the antics of the opera's heroes and the doltish malignity of its villains without running roughshod over the work's abundant musical charms.

The Barber of Seville has several show-stopping arias, perhaps none more familiar than the bravura introduction to its title character, the devious but good-hearted barber and factotum Figaro. Russian baritone Rodion Possigov gets plenty of laughs throughout the evening as the hired mastermind behind Count Almaviva's strategic pursuit of the beloved Rosina, but he also never wavers from his strong vocal account of Figaro's own healthy ego.

The opera's principal role is arguably not the barber himself, but indeed the romantic lead, Almaviva. Tenor René Barbera is a canny comedic presence, especially when Almaviva takes to wearing disguises in the second act, as well as an impassioned suitor, delivering both of the Count's romantic arias with unusual bravura in a voice a shade richer than typical for the role. Likewise, though we are used to hearing Rosina sung as a soprano, the role was originally written for a mezzo and Elizabeth DeShong's coloratura is virtuosic and lovely without ever upstaging the merriment around her.

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The two bad guys, Dr. Bartolo and Don Basilio, respectively Alessandro Corbelli and Kristin Sigmundsson, are no match for Figaro and the Count, no matter how firm their resolve to keep Rosina under their own control. Corbelli's Bartolo is the perfect old fogey, constantly flustered, frustrated and clueless, especially at the beginning of the second act when the incognito Almaviva pesters him with wishes of peace and joy until he can't stand it any more. Dressed almost like a clown, Basilio is actually the more malicious and venal figure, and his aria suggesting that he and the doctor start a nasty rumor about Almaviva and let it gain traction until the victim has no alternative but to flee and die would be the opera's lone dark-spirited moment if it were not delivered with such
charismatic glee.

Emilio Sagi's production, directed in Los Angeles by Trevore Ross, is full of sight gags and sarcasm, one bit of comic business following right after another. Llorenç Corbella's set design magically lets the chorus transform an empty stage at the beginning of the opera into a Seville public square before our very eyes.

In a program essay for this production, Conlon acknowledges that "The Barber of Seville is the work that made [him] decide to become a classical musician" when he saw it at as a pre-teen and then staged it in a household garage. He got to conduct the opera once in 1973, but never again after that until now. It turns out to be a fun reunion.

LA Opera's Barber of Seville plays tomorrow and Thursday evening at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 22, at 2 p.m.