OPERA REVIEW : Long Beach Tries Out the Other Barber

Times Music Critic

Figaro, Figaro, Figaro. Everybody knows Figaro. Everybody uses Figaro.

Figaro qua, Figaro la, Figaro su, Figaro giu. . . .

Figaro is everywhere--here and there, up and down. He is, after all, the world’s busiest baritonal factotum.

He is Rossini’s beloved barber of Seville. In another incarnation, he is Mozart’s most celebrated bridegroom.

But wait. Rossini and Mozart weren’t the only composers to get involved with this mercurial tonsorial manipulator.


Inspired by Beaumarchais’ quasi-anti-establishment comedy, Giovanni Paisiello wrote a pioneering opera-buffa called “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” in 1782. Rossini didn’t get around to his own strikingly similar version of the same text until 1816--the year Paisiello died. Meanwhile, in 1786, Mozart consciously followed--and expanded--the Paisiello-Beaumarchais example when he officiated at the mellifluous marriage of Figaro.

The ever-enterprising Long Beach Opera is surveying the evolution of the Figaro revolution this month with performances of both the Paisiello rarity and the Mozart perennial. The familiar Rossini variation is missing, alas, and so is Darius Milhaud’s setting of the ultimate sequel, “La mere coupable” (1964).

Reliable rumor has it that the publisher withheld the Milhaud materials because of financial problems in Long Beach. Be that as it may, Michael Milenski has scheduled a production of the original, unsung Beaumarchais play on May 20. This “Guilty Mother” will be embellished with new incidental music by Mark McGurty.

The Paisiello “Barbiere,” which opened at the intimate yet skimpily attended Center Theater on Saturday, was very popular in its day. That day, unfortunately, seems to have passed.

It is a pretty opera, full of graceful tunes, neat set pieces, pleasant lyrical flights. Taken on its own innocent terms, it offers discreet charm and muted wit.

It turns up from time to time in modest workshop productions. Walter Felsenstein temporarily renewed Paisiello’s lease on stage life with an exquisite production in East Berlin in the late 1950s. Boston ventured a reasonably ambitious version a few seasons ago.


An operatic exhumation like this is always interesting, often instructive. Long Beach deserves our gratitude for taking us on a rare time trip.

Still, the trip was haunted, possibly fatally, by the spectres of Rossini and Mozart. One recognizes a procedural point borrowed by the former, a structural device appropriated by the latter. At the same time, one yearns for the brash vitality of Rossini at one extreme and for the inspired humanity of Mozart at the other.

For all his suavity and skill, Paisiello didn’t make waves. He was just another Salieri.

Peter Schaffer notwithstanding, that is no insult. Nor is it tantamount to glorification.

The production, politely mild by Long Beach standards, didn’t make waves either. Hans Nieuwenhuis, the young Dutch director, decided that the thrust stage didn’t exist. He pretended that the Center Theater was really an old-fashioned proscenium house--and slighted opportunities for theatrical immediacy in the process. He also introduced the fleeting redundancy of a fatuous narrator.

In general he allowed the familiar action to unfold fluidly and with elegant restraint. He used Paul Gallis’ drawing room cum colonnade set and muted costumes as a versatile period frame.

He couldn’t resist peppering the proceedings, however, with some cutesy-fussy, anachronistic sight gags. A plastic credit card facilitated the Count’s payment to Figaro. Floating cable-car cages accommodated characters who were supposed to appear in windows. The 17th-Century servants brandished an “ON STRIKE” sign. A leitmotific dinner table rose and sank on an elevator ad tedium , for no particular reason.

In the too-prominent pit, Nicholas McGegan conducted a patently under-rehearsed orchestra with dauntless panache. He also struck a few continuo chords with stylish abandon. He couldn’t distract attention, however, from Paisiello’s relatively simplistic harmonies, his inevitable cadential cliches and his pat orchestral formulas.

The ensemble of singing actors was strong. John Fanning brought deft baritonal bonhomie to the title role. Kathryn Gamberoni chirped sweetly, even sexily, as Rosina. Don Bernardini exerted manly bel-canto as Almaviva. David Evitts blustered agreeably as Bartolo. Michael Gallup easily overcame a mishap at the peak of a crucial cadenza and played Basilio with gleeful bravado.


Minor roles were crisply etched by Ken Remo, Christopher Webb, John McConnell and Alan Nitikman. Everyone articulated Ross Halper’s English translation carefully.

This Figaro venture was nice. Too bad it wasn’t exciting.

Ah, bravo, Figaro, bravo, bravissimo ?

Not quite.