Two nights, two Barbers

Not all that long ago, the Merola Opera program's summer schedule featured two different operas in which the participants got to strut their stuff. In recent years tighter budgets (I'm  assuming), has changed that to one opera with different casts and this year they invited me to see both casts perform Rossini's Il Barbiere di Sivilia on consecutive nights. Which means in the last twenty-seven hours I've spent six of them watching The Barber of Seville- roughly matching the same amount of sleep I've had in that time. Seeing the casts this way is meant to be a showcase, but it inevitably turns into a kind of competition- one can't help comparing the two, seen so close together in the same production.

There are two remaining performances and if I were to advise you to see one or the other I'd say it depends on whether you want to see a performance featuring a better all-around comic ensemble which really brings out the buffa in the Barber, or would you prefer to hear slightly stronger singing? For those of you who chose the first option, you want to go see the first cast, whose 2nd and last performance is today. For those of you who prefer stronger singing, I'd say the 2nd cast, performing again on Sunday, might please you more. The best compliment I can give this year's Merola participants is that either way you really can't lose.

Yet a caveat is needed there, I think, because the first cast had to, well, go first- and I think that's always a bit nerve-wracking. Who wants to go first? No one except those obnoxious eager Johnnys and Janes in elementary school who always had their hands up as soon as the teacher asked a question, no matter what the question was. Yes, you can read that as a vote for the cast of the first night being my own personal preference, though the audience, judging by applause, seemed to be more enthusiastic on the second night. Perhaps because it was a Friday night?

Thursday night got off to a bit of a shaky before quickly settling in to what was an all-around delightful performance. With the orchestra placed on the floor in front of the stage (why not use the Herbst's pit- is it too small?), it began with Adam Lau's Don Basilio transforming Heath Huberg's Count Almaviva into his disguise as "Lindoro." I say shaky because it took Huberg and Suzanne Rigden's Rosina a couple of scenes to settle down vocally. Rigden went on to have an excellent overall night, with not only strong high-notes but a performance that reminded me of Reese Witherspoon's better comedic outings. Huberg ended up being quite convincing as the count and was especially strong in the second act.

The night took off with the entrance of Jonathan Michie as Figaro. Michie has incredible stage presence. He has rock star stage presence and it doesn't hurt that he's incredibly handsome. Picture Marc Bolan wielding a straight-edge razor and you get the idea. Oh wait, that was Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd. Okay, go with that- it's a fair comparison. He can also sing and if there's anyone in the current crop of Merola singers destined to be a star he's the one I'd put my money on.

Jonathan Michie: Photo by Kristen Loken

Philippe Sly's Doctor Bartolo, done up as an 18th century Bozo the mean clown in a John Waters film, was a comedic delight, though he had problems keeping up with the faster parts of the score, something members of both casts seem to struggle with at times, but he also possessed the strongest voice onstage the first night. Deborah Nansteel's Berta made the most of her second-act aria- the strong performance she gave in the Schwabacher concert two weeks ago was no fluke.

Philippe Sly: Photo by Kristen Loken

All of these pleasures aside, the unexpected highlight of the performance (besides Michie's stunning presence) was Adam Lau's Don Basilio. Not only did he deliver vocally, but Lau has one of the most expressive faces I've seen on a stage- in any medium. He's simply a terrific, very funny actor. This particular cast worked extremely well as a comedic ensemble.

Suzanne Rigdon, Adam Lau: Photo by Kristen Loken 

Last night's cast didn't have the same strength, but made up for it with stronger vocal performances. As the second cast's Figaro, Mark Diamond gave an incredibly self-assured performance on every level. If he doesn't quite have Michie's charisma, he rivals him in looks and vocal talent and has the goods to give Nathan Gunn and Jonas Kauffman a run for their money as the next barihunk people will be frothing at the mouth over. He also has a superb voice and the role is a natural for him. He's so attractive onstage I think he's actually going to have to work at toning it down to be taken seriously beyond comic roles, though it appears he could have a great career ahead of him if even if he never ventured beyond the comedies of Rossini, Mozart and Donizetti- but he should go further than that, because underneath his pretty-boy exterior is an obviously highly talented young singer.

Mark Diamond: Photo by Kristen Loken

Renée Rapier's Rosina was a strong, seemingly effortless performance, but it's interesting to note how a female role changes in subtle ways when performed by a brunette compared to a blonde (Rigden). I don't think I'm alone in finding something disconcerting about seeing the brunette as the more innocent or trustworthy character even though Rapier played the role with considerably more sass- it was just harder to see it come through. A lifetime of social conditioning- exposed in unexpected ways.

John Maynard's Bartolo was an altogether different interpretation than Sly's and for some reason he
ick factor not felt on the previous night. He too, struggled in the faster parts of the role, but overall sang well.

John Maynard, Renée Rapier: Photo by Kristen Loken

Peixin Chin’s Basilio lacked Lau's comedic brilliance but made up for it with a voice of imposing strength and tone, though his Italian needs some work. Still, I can see a Commendatore in his future and he could make an excellent Grand Inquisitor. Marina Boudart Harris as Berta equalled Nansteel from the night before, and the limitations of the small role didn't give much of an opportunity for contrast. Daniel Curran as Almaviva had to work hard within the ensemble to stand out, but he had many good moments and his delivery was consistent throughout the evening.

An unexpected highlight for me was the strong stage direction and imaginative design of the production across the board, with the exception of the use of garlands to form curtains on the stage which was almost painful on the eyes. The Mark Weiner and Judgement Day gags were quite funny, even if the former seemed lost on 99% of the Thursday night audience. Kudos to are deserved for all involved: Conductor Mark Morash, Director Roy Rallo, Scenic Designer Erik Flatmo, Costume Designer Kristi Johnson and Lighting Designer Jax Messenger.

Purchase tickets here on the San Francisco Opera Web site or before the performance at the Herbst Box Office. There are two left, both 2:00 PM matinees.