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[whitespace] Roberto Perlas Gomez, Sandra Rubalcava
Love Notes: Figaro (Roberto Perlas Gomez) delivers romantic epistles between Rosina (Sandra Rubalcava) and her beloved.

'Barber' Cuts Up With Gags Aplenty

Opera San José goes for the yucks in season-opening production of Rossini's 'The Barber of Seville'

By Michael J. Vaughn

FOR ITS SEASON OPENER, Opera San José and stage director Daniel Helfgot backed up the gag wagon to the Montgomery Theater and let that sucker fly, treating The Barber of Seville to every Marx Brothers shtick they could dream up. Though a certain percentage of Rossini's musical magic was lost in the bargain, the production is sure to leave audiences sore in the ribs with laughter.

Based on the first of Beaumarchais' three Figaro plays, The Barber of Seville is a witty, spirited attack on the noble classes, embodied in this case by Doctor Bartolo and his slimy cleric-in-residence, Don Basilio. While the doddering Bartolo has his eyes on his young ward, Rosina, Rosina has her eyes on a handsome young student (actually a disguised Count Almaviva) who has lately come a-serenading at her balcony.

The tone of the evening is set early on, when Almaviva's serenade is prefaced by a pageant of little gags by his crew of drunken musicians (a cello with removable tuning pegs, an ever-belching violinist)--and then the Count's cavatina (opening aria), "Ecco, ridente in cielo," is pretty much butchered by tenor Jonathan Hodel (the major roles are double cast). Hodel possesses a lovely timbre but needs to wrap a leash around that wandering pitch of his.

Fortunately, we soon move on to better things, as Basilio and Bartolo plot a way to trick Rosina into an unwanted marriage. Bass Christopher Dickerson plays Basilio as a kind of undead scarecrow, dressing up "La calunnia," a sublimely poetic tribute to the powers of rumor-mongering ("Slander is a gentle wind ..."), in all manner of intimidating warlock gestures.

The eye of the comedic storm is baritone Douglas Nagel, a former Opera San José resident artist who invests Bartolo with divine befuddlement, backed up by a subtle sense of timing and character. His apologetic "Momentitos" at his household's constant interruptions are wonderful, as are his inspired ventures into mimicry (at one point, realizing he will not be able to achieve the top note in his falsetto mocking of Rosina, he points to the orchestra pit, where flautist Isabelle Chapuis dutifully fills in the blank).

Nagel's major-house baritone and rolled "R's create a disturbing contrast with some of the younger principals, raising an interesting question: will Opera San José stick with its artist-resident orientation when it needs to fill the larger Fox Theater in a couple years?

David Rohrbaugh's orchestra certainly seemed tuned to Nagel-level volume when it kept drowning out soprano Sandra Rubalcava in Rosina's famed cavatina "Una voce poco fa."

Rubalcava reacted by pushing too hard, throwing a little too much metal into her lower ranges, but later on, particularly during the "Dunque io son" duet with Figaro, she settled into a less-stressed approach, exhibiting a lovely lyric agility in her runs and trills. Comically speaking, Rubalcava was great, making ample use of a kinetic physical energy and big Lucille Ball eyes.

THE TWO MAJOR SACRIFICES to Helfgot's whoopee-cushion approach were the poignancy of Rosina's situation--a lonesome girl, after all, trapped in a strange house with a lecherous guardian--and much of the opera's great Cupid figure, Figaro.

Not to downplay baritone Roberto Perlas Gomez's performance--he blazed through the iconic "Largo al factotum," dazzled with his Roadrunner-quick recitatives and even supplied the guitar accompaniment for Almaviva's canzone "Se il mio nome"--but his performance was almost too sly to carry over the ruckus.

The late Ken Holamon's 1988 set still moves like a running back, making two complete revolutions during a final-act interlude, creating a nice tracking shot with the various characters circling around it.

It was during that same interlude, however, that Opera San José cut a very crucial letter-passing scene between Bartolo and Rosina, leaving a gaping hole in the plot.

Opera San José presents The Barber of Seville plays Sept. 16, 18, 21, 23 and 25 and Oct. 1 at 8pm and Sept. 19 and 26 and Oct. 3 at 3pm at the Montgomery Theater, San Carlos and Market streets, San Jose. Tickets are $35-$50. (408.437.4450 or www.operasj.org)

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From the September 16-22, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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