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opera: A Different Cut

The Virginia Opera goes beyond comedy in "Barber of Seville."

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Rossini's classic defines comic opera in the minds of many. Audiences love watching as Figaro, a barber of endless resource, helps Rosina thwart her elderly guardian's plans to marry her, and they cheer when she ends up with the dashing young Count Almaviva instead. "Barber" has been done so frequently since its first performance in Rome in 1816 that it's easy to just throw it on stage and let it play out.

This is exactly what conductor Dan Saunders and director John Pascoe are determined will not happen here.



For Pascoe, this means digging deeply into the characters and trying to find human characteristics and motivations. Pascoe wants to banish the age-old comic schtick that has attached itself to "Barber" in nearly 200 years of performances. He has been working hard to bring out the opera's humor in ways that are natural and spontaneous. In most productions, Rosina's guardian, Doctor Bartolo, is a doddering old fool who is easy to outwit. Pascoe disagrees with this view and has instead made the Doctor into a plausible if elderly rival for the disguised Count Almaviva.



Likewise, Rosina, who is often played as totally self-assured and clever, is given a vulnerability that makes her seem more sympathetic. Pascoe points out that both Rosina and Figaro are orphans, and he has developed an appealing, sibling-like relationship between them as they work to foil Bartolo's scheme.



Pascoe, who was responsible for last season's witty, updated production of Donizetti's "Don Pasquale," will not be producing a similarly updated version of the Rossini opera.



"This is one of those operas I feel has to be placed in its original period if it's to make sense," Pascoe says.



He feels this is necessary for Count Almaviva's magnetism to be clear. And Pascoe feels fortunate that in Lawrence Brownlee he has a tenor who can fully command the stage as the Count both vocally and dramatically.



Conductor Dan Saunders also is determined to make this "Barber" different. The singers have been paying special attention to how they deliver their recitatives, those sometimes long stretches of musical dialogue that are accompanied by harpsichord and include much of the dramatic and comic byplay of the opera. Saunders points out that in an opera like this, a clear and pointed delivery of the words often takes care of the musical demands as well. Tempos and rhythms sort themselves out naturally if the words are given their proper weight and emphasis.



Friday night, although a soprano Rosina will be on hand (in itself a change for Virginia Opera, which has used a mezzo in its past two productions), she will be singing only Rossini's music. So will Count Almaviva, whose long and difficult concluding aria, "Cessa di piu resistere," will be reinstated.



This is possible because Brownlee, making his first appearance with the company, can actually sing this music. In fact, he's so good at it that he has been invited to sing the part in late May and early June at Milan's famed La Scala opera house, a singular honor for an American, especially as Brownlee will share Almavivas in Milan with Juan Diego Florez, today's reigning Rossini tenor.



Jane Redding calls Rosina "a steel magnolia." The Alabama native clearly relishes portraying this character, with her mix of vulnerability and strength. "She's a feminist in a very positive way," she says. Redding has seen her career gather momentum in the past season and will be awarded her doctorate in musical arts from Louisiana State University in May. A lyric-coloratura soprano, Redding looks forward to singing Rosina's sparkling and florid music, which in this version includes three stratospheric high Fs.



Baritone Grant Youngblood sees Figaro as the man who knows whatever is going on in town. He's a mover, he likes making money and he genuinely likes Rosina and wants to help her and the Count. Vocally, the part is especially juicy, as it contains one of the best-known arias in all of Italian opera, the brilliant "Largo al factotum" with which Figaro makes his entrance.



Both Saunders and Pascoe have been impressed by their cast's ability to come together as an ensemble in a relatively short time. Opera is sometimes like astrology — everything has to line up right in order for things to click. For this "Barber of Seville," it appears that the operatic planets may be in their proper places. S



The Virginia Opera presents "The Barber of Seville (Il Barbiere di Siviglia)" at the Carpenter Center, 600 E. Grace St., April 26-30. Tickets cost $37.00 - $74.00, call 262-8100.



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