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S & H International Opera Review

Rossini: Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Stefan Soltesz, conductor; San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, October 16, 2003 (HS)

Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro, Sir Andrew Davis, conductor; Lyric Opera of Chicago, Civic Opera House, Chicago, October 17, 2003 (HS)

A quirk of personal scheduling provided a rare opportunity to see, in two American cities, the two great operatic adaptations of the Beaumarchais plays involving the sly trickery of Figaro, Almaviva, Rosina and the gang. Mozart, of course, wrote Le Nozze di Figaro years before Rossini dashed off Il Barbiere di Siviglia. But the Rossini opera tells the story of how the count and countess meet and marry. Mozart deals with them and their household years later.

Ravishing singing was at a premium in both productions, but fortunately a strength of both casts was clear, strong characterization. Seeing the two operas on successive evenings, even in sharply different settings, added for me some extra layers of meaning. Thanks in no small part to the smart direction of Sir Peter Hall for the Chicago Nozze and Johannes Schaaf for the San Francisco Barbiere, we could see the characters evolve right before our eyes.

It's nice to be reminded, for example, that the sad, womanly Countess who melts our hearts with "Porgi amor" in Nozze is the same lively Rosina who promises "cento trappole" (a hundred tricks) to foil Dr. Bartolo in Barbiere. When, in Nozze, Figaro tells her and Susanna of his plan to dress up Cherubino as a girl to fool the Count, the Countess turns to Susanna and asks if she thinks the plan will work. We know she knows something about deceit herself, having just seen her younger self spring a few whoppers in the previous night's entertainment. And when they go along with the plan, and all the complications that ensue, we can recognize flashes of that same intelligence.

The two composers draw the same characters musically with distinctive strokes. The Countess in Nozze, for example, has pure musical lines of regal elegance, tinged with an emotional vulnerability that gives her unexpected depth. She has two of the greatest soprano arias Mozart ever wrote -- "Porgi amor" and "Dove sono" -- and gets the best line of the whole opera in the Act IV finale, when she forgives the humbled Count. Sung in Chicago by the soprano Ruth Ann Swenson, her voice like double cream, the arias were heartbreaking and the lines in the finale guaranteed to bring a tear. Rossini gives his Rosina killer coloratura to demonstrate her cleverness and she never really slows down. She gets the show-stopping aria "Una voce poco fa" and the first go at the whirlwind duet, "Dunque, io son," and becomes the musical catalyst in several key ensembles. In San Francisco, the American mezzo-soprano Helene Schneiderman gave a performance long on intelligence but shy in the surefooted fioratura and rich sound to bring Rosina fully to life.

Chicago's Nozze was a traditional production, set in a lavish, if very brown, 18th century villa. San Francisco's Barbiere moved the action to the late 20th century. A two-story house, all in white, dominated the stage, rotating to let us see into the various rooms, which framed the characters' interactions in clever ways. Figaro arrives on a shiny red Vespa, his barber kit in a wicker basket attached to the back, singing his entrance aria "Largo al factotum" while shaving the beard of his passenger, who emerges as a model-pretty young woman in a green cocktail dress. Or is she a transvestite? Either way it's a clever sight gag, one of several in a high-spirited production.

Sung by the tall, handsome young American baritone Nathan Gunn, this Figaro had the right swagger if not quite the vocal presence and coloratura to give all the musical treats in Rossini's score their due. In Chicago, another young American baritone, Wayne Tigges, sung in place of Ildebrando d'Arcangelo, sidelined with bronchitis. Tigges has a strong, clear bass-baritone sound, but not yet the stage presence to portray Mozart's older, smarter if less independent Figaro. It was as if Masseto, Zerlina's bumpkin betrothed from Don Giovanni, had gotten Figaro's job at Almaviva's Villa.

Several roles change voice types between Barbiere and Nozze, an indication of what kind of character the composers were trying to achieve. The most notable change is the Count. Rossini's Almaviva, a youthful tenor, pretends to test Rosina's love by posing as a penniless student, but he's not shy about revealing his noble rank to get out of one fix after another. His music is always stylish but always on the surface. Mozart's Count, a mature baritone, is usually portrayed as an awkward bumbler, but his music infuses his character with a noble sheen, and when he begs the Countess' forgiveness in the finale, we easily buy his sincerity -- at least in the moment. In Chicago, Swedish baritone Peter Mattei made an ideal counterpart to Swenson's Countess, singing with marvelous control and sufficient power. In San Francisco, tenor Yann Beuron gave Rossini's Almaviva the right bright, plangent sound, even if his coloratura got a mite smeary.

Bartolo, a basso buffo in Rossini, is also a bass in Mozart, where he has acquired a female companion (Marcellina) and is revealed to be Figaro's father (and Marcellina his mother). He is pretty much the same character, marvelously sung by Paul Plishka in San Francisco and Andrea Silvestrelli in Chicago, although we don't get much of an inkling in Mozart that the Barbiere plot hinged on his desire to marry Rosina, his ward. The music teacher (and cohort of Bartolo) Basilio is a basso buffo in Rossini, powerfully sung in San Francisco by Philip Ens, but a character tenor in Mozart, given shape by Ryland Davies. Ens rocked the house with his signature aria, "La callunia." Davies made less of an impression in Chicago.

Two important characters in Nozze who are not in Barbiere are Susanna, whose pending nuptials with Figaro are referred to in the opera's title, and Cherubino, the teenage swain who is constantly tormenting the Count.

Susanna really drives the plot, being the smartest character in a cast full of clever minds. In the hands of a great lyric soprano with stage presence, Susanna steals the show, from her "dong dong's" in her first duet with Figaro to the show-stopper aria of Act IV, "Deh vieni non tarder." Isabel Bayrakdarian, who sang Rosina when Chicago did Barbiere in the 2001-2002 season, has the stage presence to bring Susanna to life, but she suffers vocally in a cast with Swenson. If Swenson's voice is a rich Montrachet, Bayrakdarian's is a nice village Puligny. (Swenson has also sung both Rosina and Susanna. Any further comparisons would be unfair to Bayrakdarian and Schneiderman.)

Cherubino, hormones raging, pursues every female in sight, eligible or not. Audaciously, he pines the most for the Countess, even flirting with her shamelessly in one scene, but he also has eyes for Susanna and his counterpart in age, Barbarina. Mozart infuses his music with impulsiveness and urgency, especially in the Act I aria "Non si più" and the Act II serenade, "Voi che sapete." Lauren McNeese, an American mezzo who came up through the ranks at Chicago Lyric, was making her role debut in these performances. Her portrayal is a bit on the vanilla side, but she has a light, high voice for a mezzo and could grow into the role.

In the end, the characters emerged more vividly in San Francisco's Barbiere, with solid singing across the board and stylish conducting by Stefan Soltesz attaining all the liveliness and grace one could ask for. The Chicago Nozze had more star quality from the breathtaking beauty of the performances from Swenson and Mattei, which overcame uneven casting in the other roles.

Harvey Steiman



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