UCSB Opera Theatre once again showed that quality full-length opera is within collegiate reach, as long as you have the right talent, guidance and resources. As was the case with last year’s The Coronation of Poppea, this spring production of Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville proved artful and engaging entertainment for aficionado and novice alike. The fact that this production was sung in English translation certainly contributed to the accessibility, as did the excellent diction of the cast (only during a line or two could I have wished for the aid of surtitles).
To be sure, when Rossini’s master comedy plays well, it moves with such ease that one is apt to overlook how difficult those vocal lines really are. It sure helps to have fine graduate talent to draw from. Tenor Bryan Lane returns this year as Count Almaviva (a dramatic about-face from his ruthless Nero in Poppea). Overall, Barber is a contest of outsmarts and deceptions, and Almaviva wears multiple disguises, requiring varied characterizations, all of which were handled by Lane with aplomb. His nasally ninny Don Alfonso (a caricatured music professor) in particular was an uproarious hit with the audience.
The most crucial showstopper is clearly the introduction of the title character singing one of the most recognizable arias in the entire canon. Mark Covey seized this moment with great relish, presenting a canny and self-assured (if narcissistic) Figaro. His penetrating voice seemed the perfect analogue for the “factotum’s” pervasive civic access and influence. Covey also happens to be a classical guitarist and as the guitar-toting Figaro was able to provide live accompaniment to Almaviva’s serenade to Rosina — a premium touch of Spain. Friday’s Rosina was played by Helena von Rueden (the Sunday performance featured Mary Rose Go in the role), a clear soprano who displayed ease with the score’s rapid scales and arpeggios and power at range peaks. Von Rueden’s comic sense was winning, too, especially in the aria at the opening of Scene 2, as Rosina reveals the cunning and headstrong personality underneath her coy front. Bass Keith Colclough was a favorite singing the part of Don Basilio. One of the evening’s funniest routines featured Don Basilio flipping through a stack of hand-drawn posters on a presentation easel as he pitched his plan of slander to Bartolo — a bit of cheeky meta-perspective that started with the first poster: “My Aria.” Kara Smoot was another fine voice, singing Bartolo’s maid, Berta, a role important as a sort of spectator and confidante to the audience. Undergrad notables included Christopher Edwards as Dr. Bartolo and Angky Budiardjono as the chief police officer.
These singers gained solid yet limber support from an orchestra of 18, conducted by Christopher Rountree. Sensitive violin leads by Tom Yaron and extensive harpsichord accompaniment by Yi Kai Sim were outstanding. There was a “wow” factor to the visual spectacle, thanks in part to Opera San Jose for its loan of Dr. Bartolo’s Spanish villa. The interior glowed with warm plaster walls; a wooden staircase with ornamental iron railing climbed to an upper floor; other touches included pillars, tile wainscot, and a beautiful wood harpsichord. The exterior featured climbing bougainvillea and a fountain. The other sumptuous visual spectacle was Stacie Logue’s costume design, featuring a colorful variety of period wear, the men in knee breeches and ruffled shirts, and Rosina’s memorable gown. But the greatest wonder is the ageless appeal of an opera that is reputed to have been written in as little as two weeks. Perhaps Rossini was crowing along with Figaro, “I’m a genius, I’m a genius.”