Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Back On Our Feet Again

November 29, 2009

Juan Diego Florez, Nathan Gunn, and Joyce DiDoanto
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2009

All things considered, it’s amazing what a great season Los Angeles Opera is having. Money is tight, and the company has not been immune to the problems faced by other arts organizations. And yet, on Sunday, the company opened its fourth excellent production in as many months. Say what you will, but L.A. Opera has certainly maintained the quality of their productions in an adverse environment and even continued to take some artistic risks. Their latest should-be hit is Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, an opera not mounted here in some years. And while it is certainly a people-pleasing comedy, the attributes of the show make it much more than simply family-friendly holiday fare.

The biggest draw is an international-level all-star cast that does not disappoint in either the vocal or acting department. Joyce DiDonato sings Rosina with all the beauty and ease she did in London (and New York) earlier this year without breaking anything this time around. She may well be the most important Rosina since Teresa Berganza and she is reason enough to see the show. But you also get Juan Diego Florez whose light, but agile tenor seems custom made for Rossini’s Count. Together, Florez and DiDonato have performed together in these parts so many times in so many places their chemistry and comic timing are marvelous. No couple of singers have created this much onstage excitement here since the Anna Netrebko/Rolando Villazon collaborations a few years back. The rest of the cast is equally strong. Nathan Gunn delivers a suave Figaro who outfoxes Bruno Pratico’s very funny Doctor Bartolo at every turn. The extremely robust Andrea Silvestrelli sings Don Basilio with energy and magnetism. Even Kerri Marcinko’s Bertha nearly steals the show without barely singing a note.

Juan Diego Florez, Nathan Gunn, and Joyce DiDoanto with cast
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2009

Not everything is perfect. though, and Emilio Sagi’s whimsical and exceedingly busy production imported from Madrid often comes dangerously close to upstaging the actors in a not so good way. The production is often outright funny, which is an important thing for a comedy. But virtually every scene is filled with so much business and side-line activity from the chorus and a large corps of dancers that things can get distracting. What’s more strange is that the activity often seems to be taking place at the most inappropriate times. While segments like the Act I finale that cry out for a lot of physical action are surprisingly static and dull, other moments including most of the major arias are filled with so much for the vocalists to do that it becomes difficult to follow. Sagi is also very wedded to this heavy-handed black-and-white/color schematic that’s a bit precious. The opera opens with a corps of Rossini look-a-likes assembling the components of the entirely black and white set. Later as hilarity ensues, the struggle between this world and Rosina’s more vibrant and eventually hot pink one becomes more evident. There are numerous charming bits here, but there are just as many that don’t work.

The conductor was Michele Mariotti in his L.A. debut and while the tempos seemed reasonable with everyone staying up to speed, the playing often seemed a little sloppy and lifeless. This should improve throughout the run, however, and thankfully there are nine more performances between now and December 19. Three of these will feature a second cast with a number of very good up and coming singers including Sarah Coburn and Ryan McKinny (who are currently appearing in Tamerlano with Placido Domingo), and Lucas Meachem. So despite its imperfections, this is a Barbiere to savor with a class of singers you will not get to see everyday so here’s your chance L.A.


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