WATERTOWN — Before we walked into Boston Midsummer Opera’s opening night performance of “The Barber of Seville” at Watertown’s Mosesian Center for the Arts, my concert buddy confided that it would be her first live opera.
“Perfect,” I thought. Rossini’s classic opera buffa offers much to both newcomers and seasoned opera lovers: endearing characters, a funny comedy of errors, an easily followable love-triangle plot, and a veritable terrarium of earworm melodies.
In certain respects, this was everything one could want in a first, 15th, or 50th opera performance. The company presents only one production yearly, but it tends to assemble a crack cast of singers, and this year was no exception. The winsome-voiced young tenor Theo Lebow made his company and role debut as a dashing Count Almaviva, ardent in love and hilarious in his disguises as a crotch-displaying cavalier and a simpering song master. As his beloved Rosina, company newcomer Alisa Jordheim stunned with a sharp and sassy turn replete with superb coloratura fireworks. This was also her first run at Rosina, and it shouldn’t be her last.
Baritone Robert Balonek was also new to both the company and his role as Figaro, the titular barber who brings the young couple together. While vocally and physically agile, he didn’t match the romantic leads for spark and verve, clad in an ensemble that made him look like a tableside entertainer at a red-sauce Italian restaurant. (The opera is set in the 18th century, but the costumes provided no clues as to the time period: Figaro’s flamboyant getup appeared onstage alongside a cute floral cocktail dress, a tailcoat, brocade slippers, and many Hawaiian shirts.)
Company regular Jason Budd put up a sublimely slimy Doctor Bartolo, treating the crowd to grotesquely funny expressions and singing with just the right amount of bluster. Excellent familiar voices completed the cast: Heather Gallagher as the maid Berta, Andrew Miller as Fiorello, and David Cushing as Don Basilio, with a nicely plummy, peripatetic “La calunnia.” The most famous face onstage was also the most silent: The hapless gardener Ambrogio was portrayed by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Yehudi Wyner, who is married to the company’s music director, Susan Davenny Wyner.
The theater has no orchestra pit, so Davenny Wyner energetically conducted the small orchestra from behind the stage, placing Stephen Dobay’s set and the singers directly in front of the audience at floor level. When the action took place there, it struck the balance of intimacy and comfort, but Antonio Ocampo Guzman’s staging sent singers bounding through the staircase aisles many times during Act I.
This can be an effective device for immersion in theater, but may not translate to opera. When singers sortied into the audience, they frequently fell out of step with the orchestra. Also, there’s a limit to how wonderful even Lebow’s voice can sound when said voice is ringing right above your head — “Barber” is not a quiet opera, and Rossini wasn’t known as “Signor Crescendo” for nothing. If you’re seated near an aisle, a pair of high-fidelity earplugs might be wise.
What’s more, many of the characters’ excursions weren’t backed by dramatic logic. For example, a conspiratorial duet between the Count and Figaro was inexplicably sung from opposite aisles. Rather than bringing the audience into the world of the opera, it did the exact inverse.
The second act, which took place all in one room, demonstrated how unnecessary all that was. There was love, laughs, and mostly organized musical mayhem. Lebow and Jordheim’s onstage lovers couldn’t keep their hands off each other, pulling off Rosina and the disguised Count’s singing-lesson scene with panache. Gallagher stepped into the spotlight for the maid’s catchy lament, and Lebow’s florid final aria was a triumphant tour de force. And it all happened front and center, where it best belonged.
The Barber of Seville
Presented by Boston Midsummer Opera. At the Dorothy and Charles Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, Wednesday (repeats Friday andSunday). www.bostonmidsummeropera.orgZoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.