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A Sharp 'Barber'

Rossini's famous farce offers both laughs and enduring melodies

By Philip Collins

WEST BAY OPERA entered into its 40th season with a running start Friday night, offering a laugh-filled and musically accountable production of Rossini's The Barber of Seville. This sure-fire opus distills the finest attributes of Italian comic opera--fluidly plotted intrigues, witty musical characterizations and enduring melodies, dispatched over simple, but radiant, orchestrations.

Based on Pierre Beaumarchais' farcical play of the same name, The Barber of Seville shares characters with the author's other famous opera adaptation, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. Once again we meet Count Almaviva, the wily barber Figaro and Don Basilio the music master, this time in a romantic romp with far fewer complications.

Director David Sloss takes the broadest route for laughs in his adaptation, so much so that one is nearly mugged to death by the cast's facial signage. With The Barber of Seville, the lines between good clowning and tasteful buffoonery are thin. Donald Pippin's absurdly amusing English translation blurs the line further but brings much wit to bear.

West Bay Opera's production team has created handsome, integrated visual support. Jean-Francois Revon's set are gorgeous and hospitable--representational rather than cartoonish--and Maria Crush's costumes inhabit his environments in wedded harmony. In color and emotional tone, the visual world is attractively honed throughout.

Revon's terra-cotta-like facade for Dr. Bartolo's home embraces the village musicians' array of browns, purples, greens and grays with painterly savvy. The interior scenes of Bartolo's home in the first two acts are equally pleasing and varied in tone, particularly the music room, which gives luminous relief to the darker settings.

The musical standards are among the highest I have encountered in a good while at West Bay Opera. The cast--most of whom rotate with an alternate lineup--exudes clockwork rapport and fine singing. Tenor Brent Damkier as Count Almaviva makes a winning romantic lead, and he manages his comic duties with welcome economy. As one of the few performers featured in both casts, Damkier lends a staple attraction to the run.

In his canzone beneath Rosina's balcony, "Who for e'er neath thy window," Damkier is credibly earnest and his singing very sweet. The tripping, drunken soldier bit in the third act delights as well, and as in all other instances, his attention to diction is exemplary.

As Figaro, baritone Roderick Gomez emits spark and fullness of voice. Gomez embodied Figaro's nimble nature unerringly--too punctually at times but always with charisma. Gomez voiced his melodies brightly, and his extended upper tones soared. The quick patter sequence in the same song was swallowed up, however, and Pippin's delicious rhyming was all but lost.

Rosina, the none-too-dainty object of Almaviva's and Dr. Bartolo's warring overtures is played out with aplomb by mezzo-soprano Shawn Marie Williams. Williams' tantalizing comedic style makes an enviable prize for her suitors' affections, and her voice capably handles most that is thrown her way. I only wish that she invested about half the amount of vibrato, or at least applied it less frequently.

Dr. Bartolo, the clueless, hapless, insanely jealous ward of Rosina, is in turns outstanding and lamentable in the hands of bass/baritone Rick Williams, who is featured in both casts. Williams piles grimace upon grimace, demeaning his persona to the point of caricature. On the other hand, he demonstrates impressive facility during the Doctor's patter numbers, more so than in his sung numbers, where the lower tessitura proves taxing.

The pure bass tones of Fred Isozki's Don Basilio are beautiful to behold--when audible over the orchestra. And Willa Anderson's single aria, "Every gray-beard needs must marry," as the maid, endows the piece with more than its gratuitous inclusion in the opera warrants.

The orchestral support under the baton of Jun Nakabayashi is gallant on occasion, but distracting other times. Plenty of euphonious blends are provided by the woodwinds, and their renderings of the darting figures in the allegros come off gracefully. The trumpets are brilliant, but the horns fickle. The upper strings, alas supply cringing intonations repeatedly.

All in all, a small price to pay for so riotous a romp at the theater. And one can safely anticipate better tuning from the pit as the run unfolds.

The Barber of Seville plays Oct. 18­19 at 8:15pm and Oct. 20 at 2pm at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $30. (415-924-9999)

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From the October 17-23, 1996 issue of Metro

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