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Barber of Seville: A Director’s Game

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Kevin Short (l) and Alex Soare in Barber of Seville Kevin Short (l) and Alex Soare in Barber of Seville

Opera audiences are often mired in the past, insisting on nothing less than the most authentic staging of an opera based on its very first year of performance. No matter how long ago that was. In the case of the Barber of Seville, it has been 199 years.

New productions are often ridiculed. Pamela Rosenberg, the fifth director of the venerable San Francisco Opera from 2000-2005, was largely panned because she brought ‘Euro-trash’ opera to the City. Audiences were not amused.

One of the operas she looks back on with pride is her production of the Barber of Seville, from the 2003-2004 season. Coincidentally, that opera is also being performed this season in San Francisco, but in a traditional setting.

A professional review of the 2006 performance in San Francisco was telling. “Another major distraction is Hans Dieter Schaal’s set, a huge white modern structure that revolves to reveal multiple rooms in Bartolo’s house as befits the action. And sometimes just revolves gratuitously. Another indication that opera has increasingly become a director’s game in recent years.”

In this production by Florida Grand Opera, that director is Dennis Garnhum, artistic director of Theatre Calgary since 2005. He explained his mission in the following terms. “We’ll play with the setting, the characters, and the plot in hopes of making it a fresh and joyful experience for audiences in 2015.” Garnhum’s solution is to set the opera in a large warehouse that contains movie studio props. The year is 1940.

Whether this production works is a very personal decision. I went to the production with no pre-conceived notions, and I think it is a success. By contrast, one opera-goer of the older generation I talked to thought the set was “weird and distracting.” Like the 2006 set in San Francisco, this one by Allan Stichbury evoked strong reactions.

An effect of the updating is not only different acting on stage, but a libretto lightly sprinkled with new words. As the photo with this review shows, the opera features a selfie. Not with a cell-phone of course, but with a 1940-style camera. It may be the first selfie ever seen in an opera.

As for the libretto, the audience was amused to hear mention of Frank Sinatra and his signature tune Fly Me To The Moon. The libretto was not so updated that it interrupted the flow of the opera, and a delightful first act duet that featured elements of cross-dressing was very much in the comedic timbre of the opera.

An experienced opera personality I spoke to said that to carry such an updated version, “you need really powerful performances.” He felt these were lacking. Two baritones play the lead role of Figaro in this production, which began in Miami on Nov. 14: David Pershall and Brian James Myer. I saw the handsome Myer, who will also appear in the last performance tomorrow night, Dec. 5. Great acting skills, and while his voice is very fine, it does not have the commanding power the role ideally requires. A real stand-out performer is Kevin Glavin, a bass  from Pennsylvania, whose antics both in and out of a wheelchair (because he has a broken foot) became central to the success of this production. Even though it was an unintended prop, it worked great.

For upcoming performances, see the website:

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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