Opera returned to New York City for real this week, thanks to Lincoln Center and Teatro Nuovo. Performed before a flesh-and-blood audience outdoors at Damrosch Park on Lincoln Center’s campus, a semi-staged production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville featured a strong cast of young singers and Teatro Nuovo’s superb period-instrument orchestra.
Opera-lovers know Rossini’s comic masterpiece well enough after 200 years that it doesn’t require a splashy production to bring the dogged Count Almaviva, the determined Rosina, the obnoxious Doctor Bartolo, and Figaro, everybody’s favorite fixer, to uproariously exaggerated life. It takes only a crew of fine singers who can also act. This production sported vocal talent in spades, and its leads are excellent thespians too. With the orchestra matching their boisterous artistry note for note, I only faintly missed sets and costumes and staging, especially amid the informality and unpredictable atmospherics of the outdoors.
The orchestra was led not by a dedicated conductor but by violinist and capo d’orchestra Jakob Lehmann and fortepianist Will Crutchfield. (Crutchfield also wrote the historically informed and very helpful program notes.) The smallish ensemble threatened to overflow its rhythmic banks at the start of the Overture, no doubt from excitement at the reality of a live performance for a live audience, but quickly settled in, putting forth as spirited and targeted a performance as I could have wished for. Throughout the opera the musicians demonstrated the great skill that’s needed – especially with no formal conductor – to lock in with the score’s often rapid-fire verbosity.
Hans Tashjian established a life-loving, full-of-himself Figaro immediately in the ineffable “Largo al factotum,” bringing equal parts dexterity, fulness of tone, and roguish twinkle to a role he clearly relished. Nicholas Simpson was a charismatic Almaviva, his tenor steady and bell-clear, his delivery full of rounded character and his high notes resounding and brilliant.
Hannah Ludwig’s dark mezzo colors reinforced the steely directness that makes Rosina an unusually non-deferential, and thus appealing, figure to modern sensibilities; her high notes glowed in “Contro un cor,” especially against the shrouded (though still lovely) timbre of her lower register, while her most mesmerizing moment was the opening of “Fredda ed immobile, come una statua.”
Scott Purcell as a sternly grouchy Doctor Bartolo graced us with a glorious baritone with deep reserves of suppleness and strength, notably evident in “Non piu’ tacete.” Daniel Fridley conveyed deviousness with every breath in Don Basilio’s showpiece, “La calunnia è un venticello,” singing with rich tone and admirable agility.
On the subject of improvisation, Crutchfield’s program notes explain: “Part of Rossini’s language – analogous to the familiar ‘changes’ that recur in jazz standards – is designed to encourage improvisation.” Having come to opera relatively late, I don’t know The Barber of Seville (or any opera) intimately enough to say much on that subject for sure. But certain elements, such as the closing chorale of Act I, had a wonderfully improvisatory energy.
Venue limitations demanded cuts in the recitatives, though not necessarily the usual cuts. In any case the story did feel a bit too telescoped. Fortunately one need not grasp all the intricacies of the absurd plot to enjoy this opera to the fullest. The well-crafted, rhyming supertitles by Lucy T. Yates and Crutchfield helped too (though they were hard to read during the early scenes, while the sky was still bright).
Thanks in large part to the cheery performances, I heard plenty of laughter in the audience. I hope the cast was able to hear it too; we were seated in two-seat pods in distanced rows that stretched quite far from the stage. But chuckles aside, within its limitations the production was a resounding success on every important musical and dramatic level. With it, Teatro Nuovo shows that big, rich voices suitable for the likes of Wagner and Verdi can carry Rossini’s rapid-fire drollery just fine. Here’s to more opera in the Big Apple, and more from Teatro Nuovo and these superb young singers.
The Barber of Seville was performed July 27-28, 2021.