Opera Lyra’s season opener might not win over opera traditionalists with their new production of The Barber of Seville. Rossini’s famed Spanish comedy has been removed entirely from its 18th century context and placed within a 1940s Seville film studio, which sometimes works in the libretto’s favour but other times it feels like an odd fit. The set, originally designed by Allan Stitchbury and provided by the Pittsburgh Opera, makes Southam Hall at the National Arts Centre feel tiny compared to the grandiose stage designs seen in past seasons. The active blocking and highly characterized acting have the singers practically huffing and puffing by the end of the two hour and twenty minute show- not normally expected or particularly admired in traditional opera. However, all this being said, this production is a lot of fun and easily the most accessible for the under 65 demographic.
With a rather bold season ahead of them, Opera Lyra has done a good job of creating buzz for their upcoming performances. Next week we’ll see them stage a double bill of two contemporary Canadian operas, Etiquette and Regina, in co-production with the Great Canadian Theatre Company. Later on in the season they will be producing Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, that General Director John Peter (Jeep) Jeffries says will “return the piece to its composer’s original, idealistic intentions” (show program). OL’s Barber represents a nice break from certain classical strictures and loses all stiffness that’s been known to sometimes plague this stereotypically “highbrow” art form.
While it could be argued that OL sacrifices poise and form for such a bustling production and it could even be said that perhaps the singers are not strong enough to accommodate both the technical vocal work and some rather exertive blocking to pull it all off seamlessly, I don’t find myself to be bothered by either of these things because for once I became completely immersed in the principal characters and the story. Take, for example, the figures of Figaro and Bartolo, played by Joshua Hopkins and Peter McGillivray respectively, who fully embody these big personas and their Tom and Jerry-like relationship which sends the audience into fits of giggles on more than one occasion.
Even though sometimes the vocals do not always reach over the incredible orchestra, you can’t help but wholeheartedly root for young lovers Rosina (Marion Newman) and Count Almaviva (Isaiah Bell) and relish in their secret rendezvous together. The famous Largo al Factotum aria and the arrival of Figaro, the Barber of Seville himself, is one of the best entrances I’ve seen a character make and the pure joy and gaiety of the music radiates out from the entire ensemble on stage. The overture and the corresponding stage business at the top of the show (albeit a trifle drawn out and demonstrative) sets the scene well and establishes not only the overall context but the current social environment the characters are living in.
This leads to another first for me: the ability to watch the production without having to fully rely on the program summaries or the surtitles. The hypocrisy of class and/or religious structures and hierarchies (which is what a good majority of operatic librettos revolve around) has never been something that rings true to my personal experience as a 26 year old Canadian woman. I can’t clearly see or understand the humour that comes from mocking something that no longer resonates fully with how I live my day to day life. Thus, while I can certainly appreciate operas in their traditional milieus and understand the value in them being classically staged from an academic standpoint, I remain personally and emotionally distanced from these works eight times out of ten.
Hollywood, I get. Growing up in a society that constantly bombards you with celebrity gossip magazines and slanderous paparazzi pictures means I can wrap my mind more easily around the (often exploited) relationship between agent and superstar. Take Rihanna’s newest music video for instance (mature audiences only) inspired by very real events in 2009 that left her nearly bankrupt because of her accountant’s willful negligence.
Celebrity culture and our obsession with it is something still very relevant in 2015 even if OL’s production takes place in the 1940s. Our fascination with young female ‘divas’, if you will, and who they decide to marry hearkens to the Britney Spears and K-Fed era and speaks to our seemingly unquenchable desire for celebrities to have fairy-tale, clandestine affairs a la Beyonce and Jay Z or Victoria and David Beckham. Basilio’s idea about ruining Rosina’s career with compromising pictures resonates deeply within a generation who are no strangers to the consequences of leaked sex tapes and hacked cell phones.
The production is also exceedingly clever on a number of different levels. The reference to Looney Tunes and Bugs the Barber or even Bugs the Conductor during the overture is hilariously apropos. There are quick hair style changes done on stage that will have you incredulous at how the performers manage to change wigs so fast and hide them so well. These are only two examples of the many nuances one can find in this production.
To be quite frank, OL’s Barber of Seville is not your traditional formalized opera and it feels more akin to a highly stylized musical. It’s a shame that the high energy symphonic score doesn’t carry over post-intermission because the narrative is quite the rollercoaster and you can feel the dip in musical intensity all throughout the second act. However, the humour that the actors bring out of their characters more than makes up for this and my attention never falters for a second (which is sometimes easier said than done when watching opera).
For a show that is not perfect on a technical scale, The Barber of Seville produced by Opera Lyra certainly holds its own. I saw more familiar faces at opening night’s performance than I have at any other OL production I’ve been to in the past, which can only bode well for the rest of the season. It is both refreshing and exciting to see Ottawa’s only professional opera company go in a completely new direction, one that will hopefully inspire a new generation of young opera goers.