"Just so you know, the first act is an hour and a half long," the attendant warned as she handed me a program for The Dallas Opera's Sunday matinee performance of The Barber of Seville and directed me to my seat.
While I'm sure her comment was meant as a friendly (if not also a bit motherly) suggestion to hit up the lady's room before I settled into my seat, it sounded ominous, as if she was preparing all who entered for some kind of lengthy operatic purgatory.
Opera can be challenging theater. It's a complex medium -- combining theatrical, musical and visual arts -- that is notoriously hard to pull off well and has a penchant for long-windedness. When it is great, it is transcendent, but when all of those elements don't meld together successfully, it can be a bit of a drag.
On Sunday I was already feeling a little bummed to be indoors instead of out on such a gorgeous spring day. As I settled into my seat, I tried to push visions of sunny patios and mimosas out of my mind and reminded myself of what so many faithful opera-goers often do: "I sat through Wagner's entire Ring cycle! Ninety minutes of Rossini is a breeze."
As soon as the curtain rose on the whimsical set and the familiar, lively strains of Rossini's music rose from the pit, I forgot about everything outside the Winspear Opera House. This production flies by -- in part because both musical and comedic timing are incredibly fast-paced -- but mostly because across the board the acting and singing is exceptional.
John Conklin's surrealist set uses the familiar imagery of René Magritte's paintings playfully and quite literally throughout the production. Bright blues and reds pop and nothing is subtle; Figaro's barber shop is instantly recognizable not just because of the barber's chair, but because a giant, six-foot tall comb is propped nonchalantly against the wall.
The fantastical set design allows the actors to go all out without seeming cartoonish. Or rather, their over-the-top gestures and expressions are cartoonish, but it works within the context of a room filled with floating chairs and sky-blue costumes dotted with fluffy clouds.
Soprano Isabel Leonard is one of the most animated characters on stage as the beautiful, charming Rosina. She's a captivating starlet, flitting effortlessly between childlike petulance and endearing, hapless lover. Her voice is flexible and buoyant and perfectly suited for Rossini's bel canto style, with acrobatic, sparkling lines of high notes and a warm, satiny sound in lower ranges.
Leonard's chemistry both with the object of her affection (Count Almaviva) and her nasty, bumbling guardian (Dr. Bartolo) is mesmerizing. Buffo bass Donato DiStefano is a hilariously nasty Dr. Bartolo with a face capable of endless contortions and a consistently strong, satisfying voice. The interactions between DiStefano and Leonard are perfectly played, drawing one loud burst of laughter from the audience after another.
Alek Shrader is fantastic as Count Almaviva. There were moments when his gorgeous, ringing tenor voice lost its polished sheen at the end of lines, but those instances were fleeting and disappeared completely during the second act. When he appears in disguise as part of a scheme to steal Rosina away from the possessive Dr. Bartolo, he is impressive and hilarious, flipping back and forth with ease and skill between his real singing voice and a silly, nasal "disguise."
As the barber, Figaro, Nathan Gunn gives the most balanced performance, avoiding caricature and still somehow pulling off a kind of subtle Liberace-vibe (who knew such a thing existed?). Even bit parts like Fiorello, played by Nathan De'Shon Myers and Berta (Jennifer Aylmer) were sung superbly on Sunday.
Vocally, there are no weak links in this production and ultimately that is why it is a such a success. It is also hilarious. The cast seems to be having a blast on stage and on Sunday the audience was completely drawn into the fun. This is a fast, campy production and there are certainly moments when it goes a tad too far over the top (I could've done without the obnoxiously pandering Dallas Cowboys references). But overall, this production is one of The Dallas Opera's best this year. What a great way to end a season.
The Dallas Opera's production of Rossini's Barber of Seville runs through April 13.
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