The words “comic” together with “opera” are usually taken with a massive grain of salt. More often than not, a comic opera is about sitting politely through buffo/buffa displays that, no matter how finely-crafted, are about as funny as your average grandpa’s repertoire of jokes. We indulge it, groaning inwardly, because the music is the point, right? Not the laughs. All of which makes the WNO’s production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (★★★★★) all that more shockingly wonderful: it’s actually incredibly funny. And not just here and there — but everywhere.
It can only be that — despite the genre’s constraints — director Peter Kazaras’ sensibility is simply irrepressible. He wants something within hailing distance of Mel Brooks (not to mention Looney Toons) and he gets it. Don’t expect comic miracles — this is an opera, after all. But do expect to laugh more than you thought possible in the company of a full orchestra, wigs, Counts, and world-class singing.
Of course, none of this would be possible without a cast that gets it. And what works so well here is the sense that each singer (or non-singing actor) is bringing their own brand of humor, as well as seriousness as the occasion requires. Nothing feels forced, everything feels fresh. This lock-stock-and-barrel approach is not only immensely entertaining, it helps balance out one of the opera’s weaker aspects: the introduction of the fun and exciting barber and fixer Figaro, who arrives with a bang and then recedes before making more of a visual rather than a vocal return. But thanks to such a strong comic turn from the rest if the cast, his time in the backseat is far less noticeable.
Of course, this particular Figaro is a little hard to ignore. Gorgeously magnetic and with charisma by the bucket-loads, baritone Andrey Zhilikhovsky has the kind of bravado that says, “Whatever you think of my singing, tell me you wouldn’t rather watch me than someone else?” And he is right — he’s got that je ne sais quoi. Thankfully, his singing shines just as bright, with a bold, rich sound and an athletic, pleasing dexterity (if one that is occasionally a tad rushed).
As Count Almaviva, the besotted young man who enlists Figaro’s help in winning the beautiful Rosina, Taylor Stayton makes for a good contrast. Stayton’s man isn’t trying to outdo the out-doable Figaro, instead he is bringing his own game: a dignified kind of handsome, a healthy dose of comedy, and a strong sense of being worthy of this particular Rosina. A very attractive tenor (despite a couple of minor wobbles), Stayton brings some gratifyingly light notes and much expression. As the object of his affections, Isabel Leonard is a sophisticated Rosina, but she is the fun kind of well-bred: her silent protests are clever, never over-done, and always amusing. A deliciously velvety mezzo-soprano, Leonard delivers her Rossini with warmth and fluidity.
For pure comedy, Paolo Bordogna as Rosina’s guardian and would-be husband Dr. Bartolo outdoes himself on the comical antics with consummate timing and a complete silliness that truly pays off. A robust bass, Bordogna offers the right kind of growly command, while adding in all manner of huffs, puffs and outrage. It is over-the-top in perfect measure and nothing but fun. And no praise is high enough for his ability to run at — and miss — a door.
Another standout is Wei Wu as Don Basilio, Rosina’s easily-corrupted tutor. Wu achieves that ever-elusive goal of humor that emanates from a character even in the slightest tilt of the head. Even better, he knows exactly when to make his Basilio menacing and when to make him silly. Singing with a gorgeously smooth and expressive bass, he is a joy to the ears. And though he never utters a word, actor Matthew Pauli positively kills it with his aged servant Ambrogio, delivering some of the best physical comedy of the evening, all timed perfectly to the music. In a small role as servant Berta, soprano Alexandria Shiner sings with power and pleasing care.
Complementing the playful mood, is the quietly wonderful “puppet theatre” set of Allen Moyer and the clever lighting choices of Mark McCullough. Finally, conductor Emily Senturia, after the orchestra’s slightly hesitant start, delivers Rossini’s score with lively precision.
The Barber of Seville truly is one of the finest nights to be had at the opera, the kind that would surprise and delight the uninitiated, if only they knew. Put simply, if ever there was a production custom made for Opera in the Outfield, this is the one.
The Barber of Seville runs to May 19 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are $45 to $150. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.
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