‘Hey Figaro’ – The Barber of Seville – 28 Jul 2007
“Hey Figaro”, or the The Barber of Seville played to a well-attended Esplanade Theatre on Saturday, 28 Jul 07. Steven Ang brought his opera glasses and reports…
Music by Gioachino Rossini, libretto by Cesare Sterbini
|Count Almaviva||Dominique Moralez|
|Dr. Bartolo||Michael Lion|
|Don Basilio||William Lim|
The Philharmonic Orchestra
Singapore Lyric Opera Chorus
by Steven Ang
I found the SLO’s new production of The Barber of Seville, which ran from 27 to 30th July, to be a mixed affair. Musically there was much more to be desired, part of the blame being put on the staging, which was intended to be a colourful update of the opera but was inconsistent in its treatment. Fortunately, orchestra and singers eventually pulled together to deliver a sparkling performance, regrettably only after many of the highlights of this operatic favourite were over.
This production is set in the 50s Hollywood era, with Almaviva recast as an Elvis-inspired rock star(picture, right, with adoring fans. Can you spell Elvis?), Rosina as a young TV starlet, Figaro as a hair-cuting studio power-player of sorts (apparently modelled after David Gan only much more butch), and Dr Bartolo as a top plastic surgeon (hence grooming his own stable of starlets). Sets and costumes are conceived in a cartoonish fashion, colourful and outlandish. A studio door with a large “now playing” sign takes up the left-side of stage where characters enter and exit. Performers are directed in a frenatic way, fluttering about the stage in a campy fashion.
Such a concept understandably requires much stage direction and representative sets to pull off. While it did make for a colourful and humorous presentation, it unfortunately came at the expense of the music, compromising Rossini’s own brand of wit and humour.
Director David Edwards labours under the misconception that arias are long moments of inactivity, Not content to simply let the soloists sing their difficult arias unhindered, he set up all kinds of stage actions while they sang this virtuosic music, which resulted in sluggish tempi and monotonous singing, ruining the very highlights that make this opera the classic that it is.
In their respective famous entrance arias, Almaviva swayed his hips in an Elvis jumpsuit, replete with movie-star sunglasses, and pointed fingers ala John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. ‘Largo al factotum’ had Figaro cut hair for a bevy of ladies, collected bets and dealt cards, while Rosina cracked eggs, baked a cake hosting her own cooking show, while attending to the demands of her difficult aria Una voce poca fa. As a result, tempi slowed and became plodding, coloratura became smudgy, and the performers generally had a look of being distracted trying to remember everything they had to do.
More’s the pity, since the SLO assembled a cast of high-quality voices for this production. The popular Chinese mezzo-soprano Liang Ning, our Rosina, returned to Singapore, her dark-hued chocolate-milkshake lyric timbre a perfect fit for Rosina. Korean Yang Yungbae’s weighty yet agile baritone matched the tongue-twisting role of Figaro well, save for some monotony in the famous Largo al factotum. Dominique Morlez as Almaviva took a surprisingly long while to warm-up his creamy light tenor; Act 1 was surprisingly high-note free, interpolated or not and his runs could barely be heard in the ensembles. Thankfully he was much more secure in Act 2, with high notes held for satisfying lengths. I was looking forward to hearing his newly-acquainted full-tone in the aria Cessa di piu resistere but it was cut, not that I was surprised (Berta’s aria was cut as well). Pictured above from left to right: Figaro, Basilio, Bartolo and Rosina, in a surgical moment. Whatever happened to informed consent?)
Despite my criticisms of the production, let me just state on the record that I’m all for untraditional concepts of opera production. A good theatrical presentation does bring much colour to the overall performance. However, let’s not forget that opera is about music as well! Thankfully, singers and orchestra pulled together after the first half of act one, dishing out the music’s sparkling wit that the production complemented rather than clashed with.
Not withstanding these early hiccups, this production had much going for it. The colourful old-Hollywood/retro inspired sets brought a dash of comic verve to the proceedings – all quite fun, as long as one doesn’t try too hard to make sense of it.
In order to serenade Rosina in the streets, rock-star Almaviva needs a disguise to avoid the paparazzi, and what can be better than as a soldier or folk singer? Dunque io son was conducted like a business dinner (think a starlet discussing with her agent on who to date to milk publicity – it was Brazil Churrascaria, for those sitting too far away), with Rosina pulling out her letter tucked between a pile of scripts.
Of course one is also aware that billeting, the law of hosting visiting soldiers in private homes, does not really apply in Hollywood, neither is there a reasonable explanation as to why the soldiers are saluting a famous singer. A judge appears at the end of Act 1’s finale for no apparent reason other than to hammer his gavel silently.
Still, the theme allowed for many nice touches, from the Singing in the Rain inspired choreography to the colourful costumes, from the SWAT soldiers (picture, right, looking amusedly at Rosina, sporting yet another outfit, and the Count as the drunken soldier), dressed in National Service garb, shining torches beaming into the audience to even the many musical liberties taken, such as Almaviva’s serenade being accompanied by a synthesized electric guitar.
The synthesizer returned as an organ to accompany Dr Bartolo’s rendition of an American spiritual, performed in the place of his lesson scene aria. Also in this lesson scene, where many great Rosinas of the past have taken liberties with what they want to perform, the Canton-born Liang delighted the audience with The Shining Moon, a popular Cantonese folk-song well known to the older generation, before moving on to Rossini’s piece. Surtitles were freely revised throughout to suit the context, with ‘Find out what happens after the intermission!’ the most apparent. All these antics inspired much merriment with the audience without sacrificing too much in musical integrity.
The success of this production extended to the rest of the cast: rejecting the usualbuffo approach, Michael Lion gave imposing authority as Dr Bartolo (pictured, left, threatening Rosina with a scalpel. Rosina has an interesting sense of fashion here, despite being so oppressed), making it easy to see why the feisty Rosina is so afraid of his booming bass and towering presence. In the small role of the Army Officer, the suggestively named Brent Allcock sang his lines with resnonace and clarity, and to borrow an oft-used term from the New York Times opera critic, looked strapping in a SAF uniform with his blond hair and sharp Caucasian features. The SLO chorus sang, acted and danced with slick choreography, well-rehearsed familiarity and high spirits.
The Philharmonic Orchestra led by Lim Yau gave a sparkling reading of the score despite the sluggish start, sensitively accompanying the singers and leading a tight, vibrant performance. Overall, I had a good time. After last year’s stuffy production of The Marriage of Figaro, I’m glad that this year’s opera presentation by the SLO was successful in pleasing the audience, eventually.
P.S: 2007 looks to be a good year for Singapore’s opera goers. After appearances by regional favourites Gao Man Hua in the SSO’s Gala and Liang Ning taking place just a week apart, we now have announcements that the SLO and GV will be presenting the Met’s High Definition broadcast of the famous Julie Taymor production of The Magic Flute (abridged and sung in English) and Tan Dun’s The First Emperor to GV Vivocity! Check www.gv.com.sg for details.
Even better, the Vienna State Opera with Seiji Ozawa will be bringing The Marriage of Figaro to the Esplanade Concert Hall as part of its Asian Tour. The cast seems to be top secret for now: nothing is mentioned in the Esplanade’s or the State Opera’s respective websites. But I’m sure that with the august company presenting, as well as the exhorbitant ticket prices ‘blackmailed’ on us opera fans, the show can’t possibly be that bad… For those up for a trip, Bangkok will be presenting Die Walkure in November. Rounding up all this operatic/vocal activity will be SSO’s Messiah in December, a festive end to an unprecedented whirlwind of vocal celebrations!