WASHINGTON, D.C. – Readers may remember Bugs Bunny, in “The Rabbit of Seville” posing as a barber on the operatic stage, rubbing the hair tonic “Figaro Fertilizer” on Elmer Fudd’s bald head, only to have Fudd react angrily to the “wascally wabbit” when his head grows flowers instead of hair. Tom and Jerry also had an episode in which cat and mouse undermine each other’s efforts to sing Figaro’s famous aria. Cartoon antics testify to the enduring appeal of Rossini’s opera. They also inform the Washington National Opera’s delightful production of “The Barber of Seville,” now appearing at the Kennedy Center through May 19.
Figaro is, of course, the character who is the Barber of Seville, a scamp who helps his friend, the Count Almaviva, court beautiful Rosina and prevent her marriage to her aged and tyrannical guardian, Dr. Bartolo. Figaro famously sings about himself in the third person in the famous aria “Largo al factotum della città” – “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro – Figaro here, Figaro there, Figaro up, Figaro down!” In the current production, Andrey Zhilikhovsky sings the aria with such power and panache that he literally filled the Opera House with his charisma. The audience went wild cheering his magnificent performance.
Rosina is the love interest of the Count. Isabel Leonard plays the part well, while singing with a glorious voice. Her plaintive aria “Una voce poco fa” (“A Voice Just a While Past”), always one of the most lyrical parts of this opera, is one of the most beautiful parts of this production. Paolo Bordogna, playing Dr. Bartolo, is the sole native Italian among the primary singers and is also in beautiful voice. Unexpectedly, he brings a congenial, almost sympathetic, air to Bartolo, who is normally portrayed as being utterly loathsome. A villain congenial and almost sympathetic? Referring back to “The Rabbit of Seville,” this could be Elmer’s tune!
Indeed, a Looney Tunes-like charm is manifested throughout the production. Written in the “opera buffa” style, the physical comedy runs faster than Road Runner chased by Wile E. Coyote. Especially in the “wascally” Figaro, who in the course of the opera tosses biscuits into baskets from afar, steals sweetmeats from a drawing room under the noses of the upper class, and convinces an antagonist that he is dangerously ill by forcing the latter’s arm and body to tremble. In this production, Rosina is every bit as clever as cunning as Figaro: sly, ever-changing comic expressions, sliding off the sofa, lying on the floor, throwing things about. An over-the-top two-dimensional (dare we say animated?) Rococo set design adds to the overall effect of the events unfolding on stage.
The production is in Italian, but happily, there are supertitles projected above the stage. The only downside is that sometimes madcap events occur so rapidly that it is difficult to watch both stage and titles at the same time.
Just how does one train to become an opera singer at the Kennedy Center? Many of the singers in this production of “The Barber of Seville” are alumni of the Maryland Opera Studio of the University of Maryland, College Park. Visitors to the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in late April and early May had an opportunity to encounter future opera singers at the Maryland Opera Studio’s “Opera al Fresco,” a program which included scenes from several operatic works, both classical and modern. Mozart’s “Magic Flute” opened in both comic and melodramatic forms. In one scene, the ladies of the Queen of the Night punish Papageno, the opera’s comic figure, for taking credit for rescuing the prince Tamino from a serpent. The students performed their parts admirably, using only minimal props: a padlock for Papageno, a flute for Tamino, and (in a kinder moment) a set of bells for Papageno. The performers compellingly conveyed the drama and setting completely through voice and gesture. With commitment, intense training, and perhaps with a little bit of luck, these students may one day appear on the stage of the Washington National Opera in “The Barber of Seville” and operas like it.
We end on a historical note. Rossini’s opera “The Barber of Seville” was based on an earlier non-musical play of the same name, written by French polymath Pierre Beaumarchais. Beaumarchais had an interesting story in his own right; he secretly procured funds from the French government to support America’s Revolutionary War, several years before France proclaimed itself officially an ally of the United States in 1778. Perhaps one day someone will write a comic opera about this! Yet for now, we must end, as did the Looney Tune stars of yore: “Th- Th- That’s all, folks!”