Opera Review: Fine Shave from Nashville Opera’s ‘Barber of Seville’

1-28-14 Barber of Seville FINAL 001Ah, Figaro, Figaro, Figaro! What a fine shave you give when The Barber of Seville is in the hands of Nashville Opera.

1-27-14 Barber of Seville TECH 123Gioachino Rossini’s 1816 opera buffa farce extraordinaire has elements even non-opera fans will recognize, particularly its overture (which among other humorous homages provided a certain Warner Bros. cartoon character with a very memorable vehicle) and the titular character’s entrance aria “Largo al factotum” where the “respectable, highly acceptable…king of lather and foam…” repeats his name with well-known relish. Those and other aspects of Rossini’s music for the ages and Cesare Sterbini’s fun-focused Italian libretto based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ 1775 play Le Barbier de Séville are on delightful display in the production that opened Thursday and concludes Saturday in Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Jackson Hall.

1-27-14 Barber of Seville TECH 457Artistic Director John Hoomes knows how to make the most of the piece’s comic possibilities, whether on the stage (where a sword, handkerchief and other props along with physical gags are parts of the merriment) or in the English supertitles above it. He keeps the characters on the move, whether it’s the principals or the as-always excellent Nashville Opera Ensemble – this time featuring Eddie Charlton, Matt Cooksey, Billy Dodson, William Taylor Duke, Derek Meler, Andrew Nason, Ben Neumayer, Jameson Price, Luke Selker, Michael Wentz, Elvie Williams and Scott Willis – overseen by Amy Tate Williams. (I shouldn’t forget supernumeraries Tom Rodgers as the Notary and L.T. Kirk as his assistant, either, when making mention of the fine supporting cast.)

Hoomes also wisely uses a remarkable set designed several years ago by Peter Dean Beck for Opera Carolina that Utah Symphony and Opera now owns and regularly rents to companies across the country. A 17th Century square, courtyard and house vividly come to life thanks to Beck’s inspired work. Add Nashville Opera newcomer Doug Provost’s picturesque lighting, sumptuous costumes from A.T. Jones and Sons, Inc. that are coordinated by Pam Lisenby, Sondra Nottingham’s continual flair for terrific wigs and make-up as well as Robert Gilmer’s precise props and the look of this production is simply wonderful.

1-28-14 Barber of Seville FINAL 034Conductor Dean Williamson returns to Nashville Opera with his enthusiasm and exuberance (as well as his encyclopedic musical knowledge and playing talent, which he puts to good use when accompanying the sublime Nashville Opera Orchestra’s exquisite rendition of the score). I particularly enjoyed hearing dazzling guitar-string-flights provided by Paul Carrol Binkley, one of Nashville’s musical/theatrical treasures, during Thursday’s performance.

1-28-14 Barber of Seville FINAL 007And I certainly enjoyed the singers Thursday, whether alone or together. Most of the principals are making their Nashville Opera debuts with this piece – only Nashville baritone Corey McKern (Figaro) and Tulsa, Okla. bass-baritone Peter Strummer (Doctor Bartolo; he last appeared here in a 1986 version of this opera) have been here before.

McKern’s title character is a cocky but likable rascal, and the baritone plays him perfectly with twinkle-in-the-eye charm. His powerful voice also provides a rich primer in how an opera singer should take hold of the stage and audience.

1-28-14 Barber of Seville FINAL 062Stummer is a hoot as the old coot Bartolo. His vocal gifts and acting ability make us laugh at the old fool while still liking him. That’s also true of gifted bass-baritone Tom Corbeil as the bumbling baddie Don Basilio, who’s just too funny to hate.

Tenor Taylor Stayton is a very debonair Count Almaviva (he’s also good at creating characterizations for the drunken soldier and meek music teacher Almaviva masquerades as during parts of the proceedings – in the latter disguise his work in “Pace e gioia sia con voi” was very amusing). And what a clear-as-a-bell sound he has – his rendition of the bel canto aria “Ecco Ridente in cielo” does indeed have us laughing in the sky.

1-28-14 Barber of Seville FINAL 0402014 Mary Ragland Young Artists Jeffrey Williams (Baritone, Fiorello/Ambrosius), Zac Engle (Tenor, Officer) and Ariana Wehr (Soprano, Berta) make strong contributions to this opera as well. Wehr is particularly effective when she sings of her longing for love she feels will never come her way in “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie”; she deservedly received very enthusiastic applause from Thursday’s audience for her moving performance.

1-28-14 Barber of Seville FINAL 014And now, I come last but certainly not least to the mezzo-soprano who brings the gorgeous and gregarious (as well as intelligent) Rosina to life. Sandra Piques Eddy is captivating in looks and voice, and her beautifully supple and sensuous sound is as adept handling the serious moments (as in the cavatina “Una voce poco fa“) as she is in playing with sillier ones (the “Dunque io son…tu non m’inganni?” duet with McKern’s Figaro being just one example). Her chemistry with Stayton is good, her acting skills are impeccable and her energy is engaging. She’s already appeared at The Met, and I bet she’ll grace that and other grand houses many times before she retires from the stage. See her now so you can brag about it later.

1-28-14 Barber of Seville FINAL 019This sharply funny Barber of Seville has Music City looking its artistic best thanks to Nashville Opera. Please don’t let this Rossini romp pass you by this weekend.

Nashville Opera’s production of The Barber of Seville concludes at 8 p.m. Saturday in TPAC’s Andrew Jackson Hall (505 Deaderick St.).  General and Artistic Director John Hoomes leads the free Opera Insights preview one hour prior to each performance in the theater; the performance is sung in Italian with projected English supertitles. Tickets (starting at $21.50) and more info are available at tpac.org and nashvilleopera.org.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).