Stage Director: Opera-Theatre-Musicals
2001 PioneerPlanet / St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press
Published: Monday, April 2, 2001
WILLIAM RANDALL BEARD SPECIAL TO THE PIONEER PRESS
Minnesota Opera’s “Barber of Seville” transforms the Ordway stage into a 19th-century opera house. An ornate proscenium arch frames an elaborate wing-and-drop set with glittering chandeliers.
This is the perfect setting for a lively production full of wit. The opera is a commedia dell’arte confection of a wily minx and clever servant who outwit the foolish guardian to unite her with the ardent lover. Based on a great play by Beaumarchais, it inspired one of Rossini’s most sparkling scores.
“Barber” is a warhorse, but director Chuck Hudson gives it a new patina. His emphasis on physical busyness, including an amazing amount of high-spirited acrobatics, is a model true to the extravagant nature of the piece that also enhancing the characters. Almaviva’s ribald antics when playing a drunken soldier are a case in point.
Conductor Emmanuel Plasson matches the production with an ebullient reading. And with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in the pit, a stellar orchestral performance is all but guaranteed.
Resident artist Ryan Taylor nearly steals the show as Figaro. He has a rich, plummy baritone and a way with coloratura. His commanding stage presence and devilish sense of humor make him a delight to watch.
Resident artist Adriana Zabala’s small mezzo tends to be overwhelmed in the ensembles. But she makes up for it with astonishing flexibility and a characterization that was broad and brazen, but never became caricature.
Thomas Trotter’s sweet lyric tenor turns hard when he pushes it, but he made much of the character’s comic possibilities. His singing of the serenade was particularly effective. With this cast, the whole is much more than the sum of the parts. This is one of Minnesota Opera’s most successful productions of many seasons.
2001 PioneerPlanet / St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press
Published: Wednesday, March 28, 2001
BY MEG RYAN
Comedy. It’s all about timing. “The first da-da-da-dahh is you,” says Chuck Hudson, pointing to soprano Amy Cope, who plays Berta in Minnesota Opera’s upcoming production of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.” “Then the second one, you go center.” Hudson moves another singer to his assigned spot. “And the final da-da-da-dah, that’s your entrance, Lindoro.”
The group works half an hour on a 30-second scene. Everything is in slow motion. Nothing is funny. “OK, let’s find the timing of that,” Hudson commands as he bounds off the stage.
“One of the hardest things about comedy is the mechanical aspects,” says Hudson. As artistic director of the Immediate Theatre in Seattle, he specializes in commedia dell’arte, an elaborate form of mimed acting, usually comedic, with origins in 16th-century Italy. It explores human interaction and drama by deconstructing and exaggerating the actions of a set of stock characters: the elderly nobleman, the charlatan, the harlequin and the troubadour or prankster. While this is Hudson’s first staging of “Barber,” he has staged Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” for the Seattle Opera and other major companies throughout the United States.
In his staging, Hudson looks for “patterns that fulfill musical gestures with action. If time stops (in the music), then the action or drama has to continue.” It’s this suspension of time that creates opportunities for comedy as well as windows for revealing truth to the audience.
Wait right there. Then isn’t the comedy, at least in comic opera, really all about the music?
Not exactly. “It’s all right there in the score,” says conductor Emmanuel Plasson.
It can be in both places. Rhythm, or the way music takes up space in time, is the basic building block for operatic comedy. A theme starts simply and grows progressively faster, even to the point of overlapping and interrupting parts. It’s what gives Rossini operas their bouncy vivaciousness and makes the story progressively more convoluted and silly.
According to Hudson, all that is funny comes in threes. “First you introduce the element,” whether it be a gesture or a word or some combination of elements. Then you repeat it, usually more than once. Finally, you have the rupture: the unexpected break in intention, result, whatever. You find this in the staging of a scene, but you find it in the music as well. “Rossini does this particularly well; Mozart does it really well,” says Hudson.
In the end, the voices decide the tone of the production. Differences in breathing needs, the breadth and agility of each voice and an untold number of other variables determine the tempos and interpretation of each production.
Conductor Plasson realizes this. “You can kill a singer if you’re not aware of those aspects,” he says. But it makes his conducting much more interesting because “it opens up possibilities that maybe I hadn’t thought of before.”
Vocal play adds humor as well as understanding to comic opera. The skilled singer’s willingness to set aside traditional vocal practice in favor of exaggerated syllables and half-spoken, half-sung, sometimes even yelled vocal gestures, where it serves a dramatic purpose, add humor to the music.
It’s the singing that really brings the characters to life, as well. “Barber” tells the story of a young nobleman in his efforts to woo the fair Rosina away from her tutor, Dr. Bartolo, the intelligent, possessive tutor scheming to marry Rosina for her dowry. Of these characters, the most obviously funny, and a sort of archetype of comic opera, is Bartolo, the basso buffo character.
This voice type is funny by default. Like seeing an elephant dance the Nutcracker, we do not expect to hear a gruff man with a voice that shakes the floorboards sing light, agile music. Indeed, this is one of the most difficult voice types to sing well because of its necessity to bring lightness to heavy, round sounds as they fly by.
Enrico Fissore has played the role of Dr. Bartolo hundreds of times over the past 35 years. But Fissore is not your typical basso buffo, who is generally round and fat and, well, funny looking. Fissore, by contrast, has severe features, as if he’s carved from granite, with dark, deep-set eyes in a near-constant squint. His thin lips belie his warm demeanor. So this “Barber’s” Bartolo has two layers of humor: the built-in comic aspect of the character and physical contrast. He adds another thread of humor in an already intricate web of comic elements.
The interaction of music and carefully placed physical movements creates moments of humor and moves a story forward. In this production, musical jokes are punctuated with lazzi, the commedia version of physical motifs, similar to but more sophisticated than simple slapstick comedy. In his staging, Hudson punctuates the music at every opportunity. References to time are especially noticeable: Lines like Bartolo’s “Uno momento! Uno momento! Uno momento!” are matched to his later statement, “Presto! Presto! Presto!” both musically and physically.
By the end of just one rehearsal, all the awkward timing and staging issues start to work themselves out. The movements become less bumpy. The repeated actions mirror repeated musical motifs, which now become more immediate for the listener.
Before my eyes, what had been desconstructed bits of awkward motions become a very funny scene. Even though I don’t know the language being sung, I get the jokes anyway, and I laugh where I’m supposed to. “Don’t worry, you’ll find the rhythm the more you repeat it,” says Hudson to one of the singers as she works out her parts.
Meg Ryan is a Twin Cities free-lance writer.