Monday, October 6, 2014

The Barber of Seville, a Guest Post by Lester M Choodle

Your author, Lester M Choodle, waiting for the train to Philadelphia

My name is Lester M. Choodle and I am guest blogging for Margaret. My credentials: I sit on a perch in Margaret's house and as such I view an inordinate amount of operas, independent films, Law & Order episodes, and 1970s sitcom reruns on SD TV. I also get to hear music of all genres. I could file a report on the latest Bruce Springsteen record as easily as this blogpost on Rossini.

You may be wondering why I am writing the blog when she is sitting right beside me for the entire excursion. It seems that Margaret publicly stated this week that Rossini Operas Buffo are not her favorites. "I like drama," she said. I (Lester) am here as an impartial observer so that you, Margaret's readers, can be assured an impartial report on this opera production.

We took the train to Philadelphia for this matinee performance.

Here I am on the train with my ticket:

We attended the pre-performance talk at the Academy of Music where we got to sit in the posh seats close to the stage to hear Composer-in-Residence Lembit Beecher filled us in on this opera's history. Evidently, the first performance of The Barber of Seville was a catastrophe. A cat actually ran onstage, twice, distracting the singers and the audience. The tenor singing the Count Almaviva part sang his favorite Spanish song (not from the opera) in the first act, accompanied by his own untuned guitar. The second performance was much smoother, no animals ran onstage, and the opera has been a hit ever since. This setting of this performance, directed by Michael Shell, was updated to somewhere in the late twentieth century, the technicolor costumes were extraordinary, and the singing actors were given opportunities to ham-up their comic performances with exaggerated dance moves. Shell claims the movies of Pedro Almodóvar served as inspiration.

After the talk, we made our way up to the highest balcony called the Amphitheater for the performance. Where else would an owl perch for a performance? Here I am perched on the high wooden back of the seat in front checking out the stage:

Here I am back in my red velvet seat with my program and opera glasses:

But enough about me...This opera was probably familiar to most people in the audience, possibly from Bugs Bunny or Alfalfa on the Little Rascals, but we were instructed by Michael Shell's Director's Notes in the program to watch and listen as if this is the first time. This was not difficult since the sets and jewel-toned costumes were updated to the late twentieth century. Close your eyes and it is 1816. Open them and it is Technicolor 1970s or thereabouts. Don Basilio, Rosina's music teacher, performs an interesting Elvis impersonation.

Do you remember the plot? Lovely Rosina is the ward of Dr. Bartolo, and he falls in love with her. She falls in love with dashing Count Almaviva who is disguised as "Lindoro" so that he can assess whether Rosina is in love with him or his money. Figaro, the barber and jack-of-all-trades, ultimately helps the two young people get together by distracting Dr. Bartolo. Almaviva gets the girl, but Bartolo keeps her dowry, so everyone is happy.

One of the best scenes of this production was Dr. Bartolo's nightmare. (This scene replaces the traditional thunderstorm.) Bartolo was obsessed by roosters, and about seven of them, human-sized, invaded his bedroom and danced around. Roosters! Dancing! Terrifying! Colorful!

Margaret asked me which character I would like to perform if I were a singer/dancer/actor. She suggested "Figaro because he gets to wear that great coat with the eyes on it?"
"FIG--oh yeah, you're an owl." ['Who?' in Owlspeak means 'yeah.']

Here's a different Figaro with a different coat singing "Largo al Factotum," one of the most popular arias of this opera. It's a patter aria which means it has fast-moving text that has a tendency to get stuck in your head. (Don't say I didn't warn you!) This is one of the aspects of Opera Buffo that grates on Margaret's nerves and gave me the opportunity to guest-post on this one.

Margaret realizes that this is an important step in the evolution of opera and that Rossini was a true opera innovator. In fact, The Barber of Seville is one of the milestones of opera history that she discusses in her course, The Passion of Opera. I'll close this post with a few slides from her course showing Gioacchino Rossini, the Teatro Argentina in Rome where The Barber of Seville premiered, and two images of Rosina.