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S & H International Opera Review

Rossini, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Opéra National de Paris, January 15, 2003 (FC)


The first night of this third revival of this production at the Opera-Bastille (previously reviewed here ) was of interest chiefly because of the Paris Opéra debut of young mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux as Rosina. Genaux, who surprised everyone when her recent recording, Arias for Farinelli, became a run-away hit with CD buyers and critics alike, is, without a doubt, the most famous singer to emerge from Alaska. Her new recording of Handelís Rinaldo with René Jacobs conducting, a production of which recently toured various European cities, is also likely to sell well. Singing with a prodigious technique and confident style, it was an impressive debut by any measure.

Post war operatic history mostly ignored "bel canto" operas. Singers raised on Verdi and Puccini looked with dismay at the music pages of these works, dense with notes and fiendishly difficult coloratura runs. The vocal technique required to do justice to this music, well understood in the early years of the 19th Century, was virtually lost 100 years later. Bel Canto stayed on library shelves for the most part, only being staged when demanded by those, like Callas, Simionato and later Sutherland, who wanted to flaunt their astonishing vocal gifts. However, except for an occasional Norma, the universally loved Barbiere remained a familiar face in all opera house repertories. In recent history, old-school opera stars sang approximations of the coloratura, sliding and scooping their way through this music, singing loudly and stressing the opera buffa fun.

It has only been in the last decade or two that music schools have been turning out singers, schooled in historical informed Baroque technique, who have finally been able to do justice to the elegant, finely-spun vocal lines written by Rossini. Vivica Genaux is one of the best of this new crop and her Rosina was masterful. It does not sound like Marilyn Horne or Teresa Berganza, but the clarity of line and vocal grace was truly a marvel. Equally engaging was the clear, crystalline tenor of American Bruce Fowler, also making his Opéra debut in the role of Almaviva. A 1994 Operalia Competition winner, he and Miss Genaux made an attractive, believable and convincingly sung couple. Baritone Vassili Gerello sang a compelling, well-crafted Figaro. Peter Rose, as Don Basilio and Bruno Pratico, as Bartolo, also made solid, if not spectacular, contributions. Jeannette Fischer scored another direct hit with her aria as Berta. She has been in all three runs and audiences, for good reason, love her. Jesus Lopez-Cobos conducted with little fizz.

The production, by the French filmmaker, Coline Serreau, places the action in an Arabic setting and the sets, by Jean-Marc Stehle and Antoine Fontaine, are impressive. With a feminist take on the Beaumarchais play it is a provocative reading.

Frank Cadenhead

Photo credit: Eric Mahoudeau

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