Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Immersive Opera That Works

Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia
On Site Opera
June 12, 2015
Fabbri Mansion, New York

A damsel in distress: Lode al ciel.
Photo credit: Rebecca Fay
Lei: Setting Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the elegant, slice-of-Florence-right-here-in-Manhattan Fabbri Mansion, On Site Opera made an extremely clever use of both the outdoor and the indoor space. On this pristine early summer evening in the city, adjacent to Central Park, the al fresco opening of the opera was a real treat. A light breeze stirred the branches of the trees, curious upper east siders passing by peeked in with their smartphones recording, birds were chirping, chiming in and blending with the orchestra.  

Almaviva and Figaro meet on the street.
Photo credit: Rebecca Fay
Lui: The courtyard where the show began just before dusk conveniently served as locale for Act One’s casual street encounters and surreptitious serenades. There was even a second-storey window from which Rosina could gaze down upon her mysterious suitor. In terms of set design, it does not get more real than this. Once we were moved inside for the following three acts, the grandiose neo-Renaissance library of the mansion was a perfect stand in for the interior of Don Bartolo’s home. I have seen other operas performed in this space, but never has it so perfectly suited the matter at hand. On Site Opera plucked up its audience and placed us in the world of its characters, full immersion.

When a man loves a woman.
Photo credit: Rebecca Fay
Lei: The evening’s spectacle even included just the right level of interaction with the public, very playful and engaging. When Figaro popped out all of sudden and started handing out tissues in the romantic climax of the opera when the Count and Rosina sing their recognition duet, he both evoked a laugh and brought a tear to the eye (a handful of audience members were game and used the tissues to blot imaginary tears). It was also pretty funny when Don Basilio stole the baton from the conductor during his Calunnia aria; or else when Almaviva in disguise addressed some of his Pace e gioia shenanigans to individual audience members as he shook their hands as if in the most Catholic of Sunday masses.

I found the opera itself to be very pleasant. While there are none of the show stopping arias that one finds in Rossini, Paisiello’s great airy and energetic score feels vaguely Mozartian (after all this opera was 4 years before Wolfie’s Nozze) and flows wonderfully. There is really not a dead moment to be found and the whole package is very crisp and tight.

Monica Yunus sings Rosina.
Photo credit: Rebecca Fay
Lui: Some differences in characterization from the Rossini version are striking. Rosina in particular is more mature, closer to Mozart’s Contessa and her Porgi amor than the fiery young maiden who sings Ma se mi toccano dov’e’ il mio debole / Una vipera sarò* in her Rossinian incarnation. Soprano Monica Yunus embodied her with composed verve and a touch of drama, her voice impressively strong particularly when singing from the second floor balcony into the courtyard.

A Figaro tried by life's vicissitudes.
Photo credit: Rebecca Fay
Figaro also seems a little less happy-go-lucky here, when compared to the Rossinian barber. He is not given anything on the order of the canonical Largo al factotum aria, but rather presented as someone with a sadder past, someone who has been through many ups and downs, variously tried by life in all its vicissitudes. After he finishes writing his encomium of wine, his introductory aria instead takes us on a whirlwind tour of all the places he has struggled to make ends meet as he wandered Spain, leaving virtually no corner untouched and no stone unturned.  

Figaro's travails.
Photo credit: On Site Opera
Lei: While I have not read the original Beaumarchais play, I have seen quite a lot of Rossini’s Barbieri and I was shocked by how similar the two operas are, not only plot wise but also in terms of specific lines in their respective librettos. That goes to show how closely they used the source material (or else Rossini cribbed a lot from Paisiello – will have to read Beaumarchais to know for sure).

Lui: Conductor Adam Kerry Boyles led the small chamber orchestra with brio. They played the hell out of Paisiello’s effervescent score both inside and out making up for the fact that neither space is necessarily conducive to concert performances. The library after all is not endowed with the acoustics of a music hall since it is intended for quiet contemplation and the silent internal life of the mind. Boyles had his team of strings and bassoon playing a few notches louder than normal in order to get the sound out to the furthest reaches of the courtyard and library, both of which are rectangular.

Don Basilio's rapturous entrance.
Photo credit: Rebecca Fay
During the second half of the show we were sitting right next to the orchestra and there were moments, especially during Don Basilio’s tempestuous opening aria, his panegyric to calumny, in which I felt as though we had been swept up in a tempest ourselves considering the forcefulness of the orchestra. Kudos to baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala whose singing, in the role Don Basilio, also contributed to this effect. Musik-Ayala really put all of himself into this most arousing of comic arias and he had all of the orchestra right there at his back. This was one of the moments that for me time stopped during the opera. His voice rode up and back down the waves of music like a boat in a storm-tossed sea as he boomed lam-peg-gian-do with loud heavy-handed, hard-hitting syllables and then in a whisper, like a sea spray, hissed cazzate, cazzate at us under his breath.** A very clever off-script embellishment that went perfect with the content of the number.

Lei: Musik-Ayala’s stage presence was also exquisitely dandified for the role that he played with poise and comic verve as he rocked from side to side in the stormy sea of the dispute over the hand of Rosina. He had it all.

The world cannot contain Figaro.
Photo credit: Rebecca Fay
Lui: Another striking element of the orchestration was the decision to substitute the harpsichord with a classical guitar, which added a little extra Spanish flair to the soundscape, as well as further compliment those moments when Figaro picked up a guitar of his own to grandstand either for the Count or for anyone else who might lend him an ear (even for himself for that matter). This of course led to certain excesses, as Figaro launched on two occasions into mini-guitar solos as he accompanied the Count in his amorous escapades. All of which was justified as part of his eccentric character.

Andrew Wilkowske (baritone) as Figaro especially shined in moments like these: where he could let his barber breathe. He is obviously a natural performer, one of those people who eats up the spotlight. His baritone sound is loud and round and playful. He can push it from the sarcastic to the serious and back to the feigned serious with aplomb and pizzazz. Wilkowske is also a pleasure to watch.

The love triangle builds flawlessly.
Photo credit: Rebecca Fay
Lei: In fact, the cast had no weak links, with solid singing across the board, good Italian diction overall and truly great acting. Tenor David Blalock as Count Almaviva projected a clear, clean sound and was particularly enjoyable in his embodiment of the Count’s many disguises (poor student, drunk soldier, flaming music teacher, etc.). Bass-baritone Rod Nelman as the jealous and possessive Dr. Bartolo displayed great acting chops, managing to sing expressively all while running around and throwing fits left and right, his dynamic duets with Rosina were among the vocal highlights of the evening.

Double vision: Basilio and the Count in disguise.
Photo credit: Rebecca Fay
Lui: Director Eric Einhorn had several flashes of genius in his vision. Particularly memorable was the moment when Don Basilio and the Conte in disguise as the substitute music teacher were identically dressed and mirrored each other’s actions as they played out one of the many folly-filled scenes that unfold over the course of the undermining of Don Bartolo at the hands of the Count and his merry prankster.

The costumes by Candida K. Nicholas were most impressive. There was an obvious attempt to set the piece not in the lead up to the French Revolution, but to update it to either the late Victorian period or vaguely around the turn of the century, perhaps even as late at the 1920s, considering the straw boater hat the Count donned in Act One. The attention to detail was striking, especially in the outfits worn by the men. Don Basilio’s spats were a particularly classy touch. Everybody looked great though and their couture seemed truly tailor made. Lighting design by Shawn Kaufman was also carefully curated in the library scenes as the night went on. It’s amazing what a little mood lighting can do.

The lighting intensified as the plot thickened.
Photo credit: Rebecca Fay
Lei: On Site Opera’s production of Paisiello’s Il barbiere di Siviglia is their best work to date. They really outdid themselves and put up a show that was perfectly delightful and pleasant from start to finish. Their ambitions really came together and met their means in all the right ways. It seems like On Site Opera’s team is growing into its skin as a well-rounded company. Opera after all has so many moving parts, and location is just one of them. We’ll look forward to the next chapters of their “Figaro Project” with the North American premiere of Marcos Portugal’s The Marriage of Figaro (Summer 2016), followed by the U.S. premiere of Darius Milhaud’s The Guilty Mother (Summer 2017).

The substitute teacher seduces his student.
Photo credit: Rebecca Fay
Lui: Beaumarchais was apparently all the rage in and around the years of the French Revolution. Paisiello, Mozart, Rossini all based memorable operas on his famous Figaro trilogy, and these are just the ones that we still remember today. There are apparently several forgotten works also based on these plays, from roughly that same period (and much later). On Site Opera over the next few years (and Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble later this summer) are going to bring them back to light for us. 

Back in the day, Beaumarchais’ irreverent humor portended major social upheaval. I wonder if the sudden surge in interest in his operatic incarnations portends anything similar. Cataclysms of class, societal shifts, revolution. Doubtful but while we enjoy these long overdue revivals one can certainly hope, at least in the operatic world. 

Whatever the case, we're off to a good start!

- Lui & Lei

An immersive Figaro that really works.
Photo credit: On Site Opera

But if they touch my weak spot, I will be a viper
** Cazzate, cazzate = Bullshit, bullshit

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