Image © Gregory Briggler 2017
As I was making my way to the city from my apartment in Queens, the cold mist visible in the street lights made the decision to turn to flurries in the ten minute walk to the subway. I was late for the opera. The start time was 7:30 and not 8:00 as I had assumed. I missed the overture and “Figaro qua, Figaro là…” much to my chagrin. This would be my first time to see the Barber of Seville live, I thought on my way to the theater. Once I sneaked into the darkness, after descending through the Dynasty era decor of the lobby staircase, I remembered that I had played the opera over twenty years ago! Opera in the Ozarks is a fantastic summer program for young singers from all over the country to gain experience singing major roles in full stage productions. I sweated through many outdoor performances of this buoyant farce playing trombone in the orchestra. As a veteran of the pit, I was happy to see a small full orchestra at this performance.
Some composers, like Bach, craft a logically flawless piece of music that can work for organ, kazoo ensemble, or slightly out of tune community band. Shakespeare is similar in Drama, all one need do is plant themselves on stage and say the words clearly for the audience to get something from the beauty of the language and insight into what it means to be human. For Rossini, however, the medium is the message- both the farce and the songs. The orchestration is intentionally simple. Rossini uses the instruments as the canvas and frame for the vocal impasto. The comedy is intentionally broad. There were chuckles throughout the night from the audience. I particularly enjoyed the Bill Irwin look-alike Don Raymond as Ambrogio. Deaf and trying constantly to react to the craziness around him he was always one step behind. Mostly, he wanted to eat peanuts out of his shoulder bag.
Count Almaviva, Rosina’s love interest and eventual husband, was sung by Sam Varhan. His voice had a very nice “Italian” ring to it, but it was very quiet. I kept imagining turning up his volume with a out sized, cartoonish volume dial. I say put a mic on him and let him sing “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables! Claudio Mascarenhas was a resonate presence as Don Basillio. I enjoyed the acting from the rest of the cast, although I would have liked a little more Three’s Company and a little less How I Met Your Mother from the action.
The singing from everyone, however, was full of mistakes, chips, not-quite notes and forgotten lines. The stated purpose of Vocal Productions NYC, the producers of the evening, is “to cultivate opportunities for emerging musical professionals to perform roles, conduct ensembles, and accompany major musical works within a positive nonjugdemental [sic] environment.” I tried to approach the evening with this in mind. The production was fully staged, with nice costumes and a sturdy set, so the environment set expectations high for the audience. The Vocal Productions NYC website states that they are open to more than just opera, so perhaps a musical wouldn’t be out of the question for next time.
Precision was a problem both in the pit and on stage. The singers were sometimes out of phase with the orchestra which was often out of phase with itself. When the orchestra managed to bring it together here and there, it resonated nicely. The chug-chug from the strings and winds can be as enjoyable as the singing, but the band has to be in the pocket for the joy to come through. The ensemble finale was an interesting pastiche of tempos from all over the stage and from the pit.
There were some minor productions mistakes. For example, Don Basilio needs some pants underneath his robe! The super-titles were missing throughout the first act. Count Almaviva had three or four costume changes while Rosina had none which seems unjust. Although not a mistake, keep an eye out for Danny DeVito and Eric Clapton among the soldiers in the chorus.
The cast is different each night, so it would be impossible to make suggestions for the entire run based on opening night. I suspect everything will be tighter on and off stage by, say, Thursday. The artistic director of the group, Valentyn Peytchinov, will sing Don Basilio on Saturday, December 16th which would be a good time to go. If you are willing to accept the imperfections of singing from emerging professionals, then feel free to enjoy. If you are more judgmental, then this isn’t the production for you.
The Barber of Seville
Sung in Italian
Baruch Performing Arts Center
55 Lexington Ave.
New York, NY 10010
(entrance on 25th St. between Lexington and 3rd)
$31 or $51
Vocal Productions NYC