Previous 'Barber' Was a Close Shave

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Earle Patriarco plays the role of Figaro in Opera Pacific's production of Rossini's "Il barbiere di Siviglia," which begins its run Saturday in Costa Mesa. The baritone also sang the role in January at New York's Metropolitan Opera, and it's doubtful he can surpass the excitement surrounding his East Coast performances.

He wouldn't have it any other way.

When the Met's originally scheduled Figaro fell ill, and the understudy's wife had a baby, Patriarco became a last-minute replacement for the last-minute replacement at the dress rehearsal and first two performances--all sandwiched between his own Metropolitan Opera debut performances as Ping in "Turandot."

"It just happened to work with the off days of 'Turandot,' " Patriarco, 29, recalled. "I know the role [of Figaro], but the first night was pretty nerve-racking, to have one rehearsal and go on. It took a lot out of me. But I had the peace of God, and my family and friends praying for me. [Soprano] Ruth Ann Swenson talked me through it, very sweetly--she'd whisper to me on stage, do this, do that. It went like a dream for me."

It went like a nightmare for others.

"There's a turntable that turns the set, and as we finished the second act, the roof of the set got snagged on something," Patriarco said. "The thing weighs a good 5 tons, and it collapsed. If somebody had been under that, they would have been killed." In fact, baritone John Del Carlo just missed getting hit.

"Three weeks before, during the opening of 'The Makropoulos Case,' a singer died at the Met--he'd had a heart attack and fell off a ladder 60 feet in the air. So when the turntable broke, people were gasping, 'Oh no, not again. This can't be happening!' "

Following a short intermission for repairs, Swenson made her entrance, crossing herself as she came on stage.

"The whole audience laughed, out of relief," Patriarco recalled. "From then on, the show went like a dream for everybody."

The Los Angeles-born singer, who now lives in Milpitas, also sang Figaro for Boston Lyric Opera; future Figaros include San Francisco Opera and Welsh National Opera. Though he's also played Marcello in "La Boheme," Masetto in "Don Giovanni" and Dandini in "La Cenerentola," he allowed that "The Barber of Seville" is "sort of my calling card. I do the barber a lot."

Also making their Opera Pacific debuts in this production are Vivica Genaux as Rosina and Jorge Lopez-Yanez (Saturday, March 20, 22 and 30) and Brad Diamond (March 17 and 24) as Count Almaviva. Thomas Hammons sings the role of Dr. Bartolo. The opera will be in Italian, with English supertitles.

Patriarco earned his bachelor's degree in music from Biola University and his master's degree from USC. And now he's back in education: He and his wife, Kristin, home-school their 8-year-old son, Joshua.

"It's better for Joshua to have a father around than to be socialized," Patriarco said. "Socialization can be overrated. Like 'Oh, you play piano?' Or if you wear the wrong color to school you get shot.

"It takes a big commitment to be a parent, period. And the time is now. It's not like you can say, 'Now we're financially secure, so now we can spend time with our kids.' Your kids can't wait for you to get it all together."

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Patriarco explained that the state requires that even home schools be named. "We named ours 'The Royal Patriarch Academy,' after Patriarco, just for fun," he said. "It sounds like some big private school where you have to apply 10 years before to get in!" The wait is more like four years; the Patriarcos have a 9-month-old daughter, Chloe.

Patriarco, whose mother is Filipino and father is Italian, counts himself among the generation of kids that got much of its introduction to classical music from cartoons and other TV shows: Elmer Fudd singing "Kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit" to music of Wagner, for instance, and the Lone Ranger rearing back on Silver to the strains of Rossini's "William Tell" Overture.

As for why Figaro's aria, "Largo al factotum," may be the most recognizable in opera--"Figaro, Figaro, Fiiiiiiigaro"--Patriarco thinks Warner Bros. animators are only partly responsible.

"It's Rossini's fault," Patriarco said. "This music is good. It's full of life, and people love to laugh. So much of opera is, 'Hey, is she dead yet?' A good comedy is quite rare.

"Figaro is such a nice guy. He's there willing to help everybody; he's there to have a good time," he said. "His first line is 'Ah, what a wonderful life!' Figaro enjoys life; he eats it up. He loves what he does for a living. Which I do--and that's also rare these days."

* Opera Pacific's presentation of Rossini's "Il barbiere di Siviglia" (The Barber of Seville) opens Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. $18 to $85. Performances continue March 20, 22 and 30 at 8 p.m., and March 17 and 24 at 2:30 p.m. (714) 740-2000 (Ticketmaster).

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