Virginia Opera’s new production of Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville, ” which opened Friday at the Harrison Opera House, has it all: truly gorgeous singing, John Baril’s crisp conducting, Michael Shell’s inventive direction and, not least, laughs galore.
Shell also pulls off something rarely seen: The love story between Count Almaviva and Rosina is in perfect balance with the sly machinations of the title character.
Virginia Beach native Will Liverman is brilliantly engaging as the Barber, formerly Count Almaviva’s servant and now Doctor Bartolo’s barber and fixer of everything from love’s pitfalls to minor forgeries. Undaunted by Rossini’s fast, difficult ornaments, his lithe baritone easily handles the challenges of his opening aria, “Largo al Factotum, ” his duet with the count, and the hilarious sestet that finishes Act I, all while moving smoothly about Shoko Kambara’s excellently workable set.
As Count Almaviva, masquerading first as the impoverished student Lindoro, in love with Rosina, tenor Andrew Owens has great pipes and passionate intensity. Later, as Rosina’s long-haired hippie music teacher, toting a sitar, diving into yoga poses and greeting the suspicious Bartolo with, “Namaste, man, ” Owens has the audience in hysterics.
Rosina, the doctor’s ward, is sung by mezzo Megan Marino with vocal and physical agility, not to mention huge power. She gave the warhorse aria “Una voce poco fa” (“A little voice I hear”) a fresh and masterful performance.
Matthew Burns is terrific as the always-frustrated basso-buffo Bartolo. With richly comic timing, dynamic physicality and a powerful voice, he goes in and out of falsetto to gleeful effect in his second act aria.
In Rossini’s original, Don Basilio was a singing teacher; here, Christopher Job has great height and an enormous bass to match. Clad in a striped magenta velveteen suit with a strange, straight mustache, he looks like a deranged John Travolta striking disco poses. Sly Figaro is the fixer; Job’s Don Basilio is the inept wannabe who’ll never succeed but you have to admire his persistence.
Bass Andre Chiang, who was a terrific Anthony Hope in Virginia Opera’s 2014 “Sweeney Todd, ” stands out as the count’s servant Fiorello and as the head policeman. Even in a minor role, he has great presence; one just wants to see and hear more of him.
Rossini had Bartolo’s pert servant Berta as Rosina’s governess, but that wouldn’t fly in the update. Soprano Olivia Yokers grows in the role, from louche, cigarette-smoking maid to Rosina’s friend who eventually get her hooks into Bartolo. (She has a closet of fancy gowns and feather boas. And whips and handcuffs. Poor Bartolo.)
John Cauthen’s performance as Bartolo’s elderly servant Ambrogio is absolutely hysterical. His slow, shuffling gait channels Tim Conway’s character of The Oldest Man from “The Carol Burnett Show.” His scene in the eye doctor’s chair is pure physical comic genius, not to mention his remaining completely motionless for quite a while. If the principals weren’t so excellent, he’d steal the show.
Updates rarely work, but in this “Barber, ” the update to the 1960s –“a time before cellphones” – provides hilarious visual references of now-classic anachronisms, from a pay phone to the Clapper sound-activated light switch. Shell’s direction is absolutely spot-on in the amazing crowd scenes (the street fair folks tossing confetti into the air, the fast-stepping phalanx of policemen, the caped chickens in Bartolo’s dream–don’t ask), yet the love scenes, though tenderly intimate, still have spice. Amanda Seymour’s colorful costumes and Driscoll Otto’s lighting design give zing to the already zingy production.
The orchestra of Virginia Symphony Orchestra players, under Baril’s baton, bring out all of Rossini’s verve, vitality and speed. In the pit and onstage, Todd Holcomb’s subtle guitar is a great asset.