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Looking to the Stars in ‘Barber’ : L.A. Opera’s New Production Has a Vivid Cast but Could Use Sharper Insight

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” usually is thought of as a “dark” and dangerous opera in its powerful exaltation of Eros over society, its demonstration that the body and mind only achieve the greatest fulfillment through the exclusion of the real world. On the other hand, Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville"--which L.A. Opera, having just finished with “Tristan,” presented in a new production Friday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion--is considered a “light” comedy. In it, love finds a way through absurd engineering of social conventions.

But perhaps Wagner’s opera is the absurd fantasy, and Rossini’s is the dangerous indictment of a society that accepts sexual abuse with a wink and nod, and makes sport of the power that the rich have over the poor. Perhaps it is the “Barber” that is dark and “Tristan” light.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Feb. 27, 1997 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 27, 1997 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 45 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Opera dates--The dates and times of L.A. Opera’s “Barber of Seville” were incorrect in Monday’s Calendar. The opera continues at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday, 1 p.m., and March 4, 8 and 11, 7:30 p.m.

That notion finds some realization in the way this new “Barber,” with its monochromatic set imported from Cologne Opera, contrasts with the home-grown iridescent “Tristan” that David Hockney created. Hockney was perfectly content to let his characters be silly archetypes on stage, part of the set. In Michael Hampe’s production of the “Barber,” the singers are expected to do as much as they can to bring color and life to a set of muted grays that is sophisticated in its minimalism but lacking in much specific information about time or place.

And the singers, an engaging and hard-working American cast, do plenty. Jennifer Larmore has become famous for her Rosina, and justifiably so. She makes some very difficult music seem effortless and absolutely natural. She can, operatically speaking, walk and chew gum at the same time, and no matter what complicated run she is spinning out with elegance and precision, she is always acting.

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And this production boasts not just the spectacular star turn of a popular mezzo-soprano, but also vivid performances from the entire cast, for all of whom stardom appears to be just down the road. Bruce Ford, a tenor with a captivating lyric smoothness, is a dashing Almaviva; and Rodney Gilfry, the local baritone, is a suave and convincing Figaro, with none of the dumb bluster that has made the role one of opera’s cliches.

John Del Carlo’s icky Dr. Bartolo takes a little warming to (the bass-baritone from San Francisco replaced Michael Gallup at the last minute) but he, too, ultimately won sympathy--not an easy task for a lecherous clown.

But the key to all that is right and, unfortunately, much that is wrong with this production is found where one might least expect it, in the small and usually thanklessly slapstick part of the maid, Berta. Suzanna Guzman, the local mezzo-soprano also on the verge of big things, not only sings with a sense of grace but also manages with small gestures and looks to comment wisely on the foibles of the world around her.

This interpretation is important because she signals just how incredibly silly everything is that goes on around her. Although Hampe created this production for Cologne, Kai-Andreas Luft was brought in from Berlin Komische Oper to direct. Many of the theatrical ideas (whether Hampe’s or his) are mindless time warp. Characters go through unoriginal clockwork motions to Rossini’s patterned movements. A quality of buffoonery, imposed over almost everything, recalls the sensibility drawn from ancient burlesque slapstick and the dumbest of German TV sitcoms.

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There are laughs. But there could also be insights. Larmore’s incessant vivacity won’t bore anyone, but she is a singer on the verge of getting carried away with her own cuteness and is in desperate need of direction. Gilfry is in the early stages of forming a genuine characterization of Figaro, but Friday he seemed too much on his own. Only Guzman found the focus that remains a promise in the rest of the cast.

A more giving conductor also could help. The pit has not been a strong point of L.A. Opera this season. Rossini’s orchestra is important, but the L.A. Opera Orchestra sounded, at least from a seat downstairs close to the stage, unimportant. In his U.S. debut, Marco Guidarini, a young Italian conductor with a tense, clipped style, emphasized speed but not its more important complement, propulsion. Worse, he exhibited neither a sense of humor nor a feeling for the score’s more telling details. That the singers kept up with him, and still managed all that clowning, is more to their credit than the production’s.

* Performances of “The Barber of Seville” by L.A. Opera continue Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 1 p.m. and March 1, 4, 8 and 11 at 7:30 p.m. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. $23-$130. (213) 365-3500.


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