By Lawrence Budmen 

Gioachino Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) is one of the most popular comic operas ever written. An ideal performance of this evergreen requires stylish musical direction, a group of singers with vibrant voices and the ability to deliver rapid fire patter with élan, and a sophisticated production that takes the farcical libretto seriously. The Florida Grand Opera’s production succeeds fully at only one of these elements.

On February 11(at Dade County Auditorium) Stewart Robertson conducted a lithe, spirited account of the score. Using period instrument techniques, Robertson coaxed a nearly vibratoless reading from the much improved orchestra.

Renaud Doucet’s production relied on a constant barrage of sight gags and slapstick. The keystone cops finale to the first act (replete with flickering lights and relentless motion) was but one example of the director’s overkill. In this over hyped atmosphere there was no room for character development. Allen Moyer’s sets looked like cardboard cutouts. The claustrophobic designs would have been more appropriate for a high school play than a major opera production.

Kevin Glavin as Doctor Bartolo easily dominated the uneven cast. A resolute basso-buffo, Glavin made the patter (taken at fast tempos) seem like child’s play. Despite the busy production, he managed to actually make Bartolo a fully rounded character.

Sally Wolf (once a brilliant Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute) brought a still impressive voice and scene stealing stage presence to the minor role of the maid Berta. Matthew Burns has the makings of a fine bass (with strong, firm low notes) but he was a lackluster Don Basilio.

As Figaro Aaron St. Clair Nicholson has a fine baritone voice but his declamation was over the top – emphatic to the point of exaggeration.

Phyllis Pancella’s once impressive mezzo now sounds blousy. High notes were sometimes shrill. Her Rosina was devoid of charm. While a unique artist like the mezzo Cecilia Bartoli will always be an exception, sopranos are more effective in this role. Their lighter sound is more appropriate to the soubrette character. (For many years Roberta Peters excelled in this role. That kind of coloratura ease is just what was lacking here.)

Paul Austin Kelley has specialized in Rossini’s high tenor roles. As Count Almaviva, he commanded idiomatic style but the voice is beginning to show signs of wear. Too often he seemed to be husbanding his resources. Kelley’s high notes tended to sound harsh, sometimes wayward.

Despite a strong orchestral performance and Robertson’s galvanizing leadership, this Barbiere was more sitcom than opera buffa.

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