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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Opera Review: A Close Shave

Rossini's Barbiere cuts it up in Kanazawa.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
This store is in Minnesota but Rossini's Barbiere was open for business in Kanazawa, Japan last month.
Gioachino Rossini’s ‘Il Barbiere di Siviglia’ remains one of the most popular operas in the western canon, with a two hundred year performing tradition. On Sunday, February 20, that tradition came to the west coast of Japan, as the Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa offered a semi staged, concert version of the Italian masterpiece, under the baton of Marc Minkowski. The performance, in the OEK's gorgeous, modern mid-sized concert hall, featured columnar LED titles (in Japanese) on either side of the acting area.



Marc Minkowski gained fame in France, leading his Les musiciens de Louvre in performances of operas from the 18th century. ‘Il Barbiere’ has roots in that era too, having begun life ad opera seria. Working on a tight deadline, the ever-efficient Rossini recycled much of the score from an earlier, failed opera, ‘Aureliano in Palmira.’ The overture, Rosina’s Act I ‘Una voce poco fa’ and  even the hammering Act I finale were not written for drawing-room

This performance reflected some of that history, as the overture bellowed in the crisp acoustic of the Ishakawa Ongakudo Concert Hall. However, like the little band of players accompanies Count Almaviva’s Act I serenade, the conductor quite failed to restrain himself. He chose an aggressive approach to the Rossini crescendos, and on more than one occasion drowned out the singers and male chorus.

However, even his bright thunder could not outshine the cast. The American tenor David Portillo made a case for presenting this aria under its alternate title: ‘Almaviva’ or ‘The Useless Precaution’. He dominated the proceedings from start to finish tossing off his two Act I solos with sweet tone and  genial presence. He then changed personality, summoning outrageous comic instincts (including an entering scream of ‘KAMPAI!’) for the Act I scene where he pretended to be a drunken soldier.

This special kind of madness extended into the second act, with the ‘Pace e gioia’ scene coming across as sweet rather than grating. However, a generally fine and strong performance  was was undermined  by the decision to include the optional and difficult ’Cessu di piu resistre’ at the end of the opera. There’s a reason that this long and difficult aria (which was later re-used by Rossini in the finale of La Cenerentola’) is a excised in most performances. With variable pitch and a tiring instrument, Mr. Portillo should have left this entirely optional number well enough alone.

With 'Largo al factotum', Andrzej Filo├▒czyk made a promising entrance. But his too-light baritone and always genial presence made Figaro fade into the background in the second act. In an opera named after the light-fingered barber, that's a serious problem. Mezzo Serena Melfi has a voice that is more incisive than pretty, but her spitfire Rosina reflected the heroines spirit and fury at her clownish captor.

Bass Calro Lepore showed why Rossini's Bartolo remainss one  the great comic villains 200 years after this show took the boards. He sang ‘Un dottor della mio sorte’ with a sure and accurate command of the aria’s demanding patter. As the second bass, Kazuma Gito made a meal of Basilio, balancing round, dark tone with an oleaginous stage presence of a man who will do anything for money. Mezzo Eiko Kotzumi was a crowd-pleasing Berta with her lone Act II aria.

The other shining star of this performance wad the Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa, who made a good case for doing more operas in concert. Despite the overloud moments, they played this score with a welcome lack of restraint, letting the horns and winds loose in the overture and storm sequences. Also, fortepianist Federica Bianchi made a strong contribution, supporting the many secco recitatives with subtlety and skill, and even getting in in the action during the Act II lesson scene.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.