Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

A Close Shave

July 05, 2009

Joyce DiDonato before the leg break in Barbiere
Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH 2009

All right, Los Angeles. Consider this your fair warning. Fall is not that far away, and, if everything goes off as planned at Los Angeles Opera, there will be at least one show that is guaranteed to be a huge success. That particular production will be a revival of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia which the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion hasn’t seen in awhile and will feature a super all-star cast including Joyce DiDonato as Rosina, Juan Diego Florez as Count Almaviva and Nathan Gunn as Figaro. How am I so sure? Well here in London, I got the chance to see a dry run with almost the same cast (minus Gunn) and I can tell you it was musical dynamite. I know big stars aren’t everything, but these two in this opera which they’ve sung so many times in so many places are simply superb. DiDonato’s Rosina is lively and controlled with beautiful top notes and dazzling runs. She can even perform it under the most incredible circumstances. DiDonato, the original Yankee Diva, broke her fibula during Act I. (You can check out her first hand report and photos on her own blog.) At the end of the fist act it was announced that she had an "ankle sprain", but she persevered above and beyond the call of duty in Act II with a limp, a crutch, and plenty of moxie. Vocally, you’d never have noticed a thing. Talk about an artist with unbelievable commitment. I don't think I'd have the wherewithal to carry on with a broken leg in my job. Here's to you Ms. DiDonato, and here's wishing you a very speedy recovery.

Juan Diego Florez and the cast of Barbiere
Photo: mine 2009

With such a great performance in the face of physical adversity, it might be easy to overlook the rest of this incredible cast. But then again, we're talking about Juan Diego Florez. He’s athletic, charming, and wonderfully solid throughout his range. He’s got great comic timing and when he’s up against the likes of Alessandro Corbelli’s Dr. Bartolo and Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Don Basilio that is an immense task. Yes, you read that right, Furlanetto and Corbelli were both present in a significant piece of luxury casting. The only wild card in the mix was the rather last minute replacement for Simon Keenlyside who was originally scheduled as Figaro but withdrew form the run at the last minute due to health reasons. Pietro Spagnoli wasn’t bad, and in fact still made for a funny and forceful Figaro entering from the rear of the auditorium and joking with audience members on his way toward the stage. There were celebrities in the pit as well as Royal Opera Music Director Antonio Pappano led this revival with incredible care and distinction. It was light and breezy, but detailed throughout in a first rate performance from the orchestra.

Ironically, an evening of such high musical quality and theatrical bravery occurred amidst perhaps the worst opera staging I can remember seeing in a long time. Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier's contributions to this Barbiere consist of little more than a lightly paneled box and a handful of commedia masks. It’s great for reflecting voices, but does almost nothing else. Panels occasionally move aside to reveal doors and windows when they are called for. Once in awhile a piece of furniture is wheeled in. Otherwise it’s nothing more than a concert performance with bright costumes. Except that is when things rev up at the end of Act I. The box in an effort to mirror the emotional frenzy of the cast on stage rises up and tilts back and forth on hydraulics to one side and another. Nothing says zany like a slow-motion 4.7 tumbler. The staging is neither attractive or insightful, and barely functions as a set at all. A huge disappointment even with the five or six heart-shaped balloons above the keystone cop chorus at the end. The good new in L.A. is that we won’t be burdened with this royally inept staging but get to keep some big portions of the great cast. Plan ahead now, you’ve been warned.

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DiDonato will surely be great in LA, but NGunn spoils any show he's in...Vapid characterizations and a nonexistent voice. Saw but couldn't hear his Figaro in SF--the whole show was inaudible. He's an embarassment.
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