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'Fidelio,' 'Barber of Seville' Hit and Miss in Houston

by Olin Chism 7 Nov 2011 4:35 PM

The Houston Grand Opera’s new production of The Barber of Seville is a classic example of gilding the lily. Houston has introduced a multitude of embellishments that serve more than anything just to irritate.


Karita Mattila as Leonore (center) in Fidelio

The Houston Grand Opera’s new production of The Barber of Seville is a classic example of gilding the lily. Notwithstanding nearly 200 years of performances demonstrating that Rossini’s comedy can stand very well on its own, Houston has introduced a multitude of embellishments that serve more than anything just to irritate.

What made the production doubly annoying Sunday afternoon was that it drained some of the life out of  what was actually a pretty good performance, musically speaking.

The production, a joint endeavor of Houston and the opera companies of Toronto, Bordeaux and Sydney, is the handiwork of two Spaniards, director Joan Font and set and costume designer Joan Guillén (don’t be fooled by the names; both are men — “Joan” being a common Catalan male name).

Space doesn’t permit listing all of the production’s embellishments, but here are a few notable ones:

  • A platoon of new, nonsinging characters. At one point there were six Figaros onstage at the same time, one doing the singing, the others serving various other distracting functions.
  • Marcellina. An importation from The Marriage of Figaro, where, you may remember, she turned out to be the mother of Figaro and the ex-girlfriend of Doctor Bartolo. In this Barber she’s silent.
  • Gauzy, see-through walls so that audience members can watch the extra characters perform when they get tired of observing what the singing characters are up to.
  • A chandelier that rises and falls as a clinging acrobat acros his bat high and low over the stage. Another good way to avoid the singing stuff. Also, it introduces an element of suspense: Will he lose his grip and crash into the performers below?
  • A monster guitar and a monster piano (which, if it were real, would more than double the range of a standard concert grand).

And so it went.

The singing cast were good sports about all this, performing the silly stuff when they had to while keeping their places in the score. Lawrence Brownlee, who was singing Almaviva, got some hearty and well deserved laughs by miming flourishes at the piano in perfect coordination with the orchestra during the lesson scene. One of the rare instances when innovation worked.

In addition to Brownlee, whose extraordinarily agile tenor voice was appealing even if intonation slipped once or twice, the fine cast of principals included Nathan Gunn in the title role, Ana María Martínez as Rosina, Patrick Carfizzi as Doctor Bartolo, Kyle Ketelsen as Don Basilio and Catherine Cook as Berta.

Leonardo Vordoni led a brisk, well played performance by the Houston Grand Opera orchestra. The chorus was another asset.

In contrast to The Barber, Beethoven’s Fidelio was excellent on all counts in Saturday night’s performance in Brown Theater of the Wortham Theater Center.

Robert Israel’s sets, on loan from the Metropolitan Opera, create an appropriately gloomy atmosphere, with dark colors, subdued lighting and oppressive structures (rows of barred cells for Act 1, a deep dungeon below for Act 2).

Florence von Gerkan’s complementary costumes and modern weapons place the opera in current times.

Director Jürgen Flimm’s staging heightens the drama without striving for effect (the killing of Don Pizarro at the end flows naturally out of what went before).

Vocally, the opera was in great shape, with soprano Karita Mattila highly effective both musically and dramatically as Leonore/Fidelio. Simon O’Neill as Florestan produced some spine-tingling proto-Wagnerian sounds in Act 2. Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson’s voice in the part of Rocco combined an unusually lyrical timbre with impressive depth.

Brittany Wheeler (Marzelline), Norman Reinhardt (Jaquino), Tómas Tómasson (Don Pizarro) and Kyle Ketelsen (Don Fernando) were other soloists in the generally fine cast.

The strong playing of the Houston Grand Opera orchestra and singing of the company’s chorus under Michael Hofstetter’s direction made this an effective performance overall.

Houston’s Barber has completed its regular run, though a few special performances remain. Fidelio continues through Nov. 13. Verdi’s La Traviata and Don Carlos, Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia and Donizetti’s Mary Stuart will be produced in the winter and spring.