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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 © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Opera Review: The First Close Shave

On Site Opera presents Paisiello's Barbiere di Siviglia.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Figaro (Andrew Wilkowske) and Rosina (Monica Yunus) share a moment
in Giovanni Paisiello's Il Barbiere di Siviglia.
Photo by Rebecca Fay © 2015 On Site Opera.
Giaochino Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia celebrates its bicentennial birthday next year, having trimmed beards onstage for two centuries. But when it premiered in 1816, Rossini's opera eclipsed a 1782 opera on the same subject by composer Giovanni Paisiello. On Tuesday night at the Fabbri Mansion, New York's own On Site Opera  kicked off its three year Figaro Project with an entertaining and vital performance of Paisiello's Barbiere. The Project continues in 2016 and 2017 with performances of two more operas based on lesser-known adaptations of the Beaumarchais plays: Marcos Portugal's The Marriage of Figaro and Darius Milhaud's version of The Guilty Mother.

Built in 1916, the Fabbri Mansion is an Upper East Side manor house constructed for Edith Fabbri, herself a daughter of tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. (It is now the House of the Redeemer, and dedicated to Episcopal retreats and study.) The show was updated to that period, outfitting Count Almaviva in a dapper suit, spats and straw boater, Figaro in a smart derby and Dr. Bartolo in a green waistcoat and a truly presidential pair of sideburns that no doubt needed Figaro's constant attention. The turn-of-the-century aesthetic put one in mind of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, creating a perfectly serious setting to for Almaviva's hell-bent courtship of his beloved Rosina.

In recent years, Eric Einhorn (who serves as artistic director, stage director and company founder) has turned unlikely places like the Cotton Club and the Bronx Zoo into venues for opera. He made maximal use of the Mansion, staging the opening street scene in the courtyard (complete with passers-by peering in through the wrought-iron gates.) He moved the entire audience (and the orchestra) inside for the scenes in Dr. Bartolo's house. These were set in the mansion's upstairs library, an elegant if somewhat faded space for work and study. Its hidden doors, multiple entrances and vast carpet became a perfect setting for the singers, reflecting the stuffiness of Bartolo's house and his own stilted world-view.

This was a strong young cast, led by David Blalock's plush bel canto tenor and its easy transitions into a clear and sweet upper register. This setting of Barbiere puts the focus more squarely on the amorous Count, with disguised and schemes that offer the same amount of character singing and musical opportunity.

Mr. Blalock was at his best in the scene where he impersonates music teacher Don Alonso, singing the "Pace, gioia" scene with a muted, half-whispered tone that at once suggested intrigue and skin-crawling hypocrisy. As Figaro, baritone Andrew Wilkowske made the most of his comic moments, singing with firm tone and never resorting to mugging in the ensembles. He does not have an aria that is the equivalent of "Largo al factotum" but delivered a very funny patter number detailing Figaro's madcap personal history and extensive travels across the length and breadth of Spain.

Paisiello's opera introduces Rosina relatively late in the first act. Here, she was even more of a bird in a gilded cage, trapped by her fussy ward and would-be suitor who never lets her leave the house. Soprano Monica Yunus brought fighting spirit and a pleasing, sweet tone that gripped the ear from her first balcony scene. She caught the tragic undercurrent of Rosina (who ultimately trades Bartolo's brand of domestic captivity for another sort in The Marriage of Figaro) but leavened the serious moments and tragicomic arias with the giddy energy of a young woman falling in love.

The third leg of this opera's comic trio is Bartolo, played with gravitas and bluster by veteran bass Rod Nelman. Mr. Nelman has a huge, dark-toned instrument which rang in the courtyard and thundered in the library, sometimes overwhelming his fellow singers. To that, he added an abundance of physical comic skills, playing Elmer Fudd to Mr. Wilkowske's barber and accentuating the seriousness of Rosina's situation. As a comic foil, Isaiah Musik-Ayala's Don Basilio doesn't get a "La Calunia" to sing, but he proved memorable in the massive ensemble that comes in the middle of Act Two. Bass Benjamin Bloomfield and soprano/dancer Jessica Rose Fultran made the most of their opportunities as Bartolo's servants, who in this version become part of the masquerade that finally succeeds in thwarting their master. Very Beaumarchais, that!

Today, Paisiello lives as a footnote, a name familiar to those who pore through the New Grove Opera Encyclopedia on rainy afternoons. He is best remembered for leading the claque that (successfully) torpedoed Rossini's opera on its opening night. This performance, with a chamber orchestra  (under the baton of On Site's music director Geoffrey McDonald) showed that the older composer had his own generous melodic gifts. The burbling overture, spitfire comic exchanges and lovely, carefully constructed arias are all in the mode of the classical 18th century. All deserve further attention beyond this performance.

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