Reviewed by Judy Richter
San Francisco Opera is presenting a new/old production of Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Orpheum Theatre. It's new because it has never been presented there before and because it is being presented with two casts to allow for more frequent performances during a shorter time span.
It's old in that the set is a classic that was originally designed by Alfred Siercke for the Hamburg Opera after World War II. The design was first seen in San Francisco in 1963 and again in 1982 and 1987. This year's production uses new costumes designed by David Walker and built by the SFO costume shop.
The set is well-suited to the Orpheum, which has a relatively shallow stage. The outer walls of the three-level home of Doctor Bartolo can slide away to reveal the rooms inside, hence allowing for easy set changes.
This sunny set goes well with this production, which is blessed with excellent singer-actors in both principal and supporting roles. Young Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, making his SFO debut, stars in the title role, endowing it with a rich, lustrous, flexible voice. He immediately wins the audience over with his opening showpiece aria, Largo al factotum della città, which he sings on the balcony of Bartolo's house, where he has just enjoyed a romantic liaison with one of the master's housemaids.
American mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore, who has sung here only once before in a concert version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, is dazzling as Rosina, who also has a showpiece aria, Una voce poco fa, early in her first scene. Larmore displays good technique in her runs and ornamentations as well as the ability to use varied dynamics to her advantage. Her high notes are clear and strong, but her bottom notes sound as if they're placed in the back of her throat rather than her chest, creating an occluded sound. Otherwise she lends a bright comic sense and an assured stage presence to her role.
American tenor Bruce Ford lends his bright, light tenor to the role of Count Almaviva, easily delivering his arias and mastering the comic aspects of the role. Also outstanding are American bass-baritone John Del Carlo, an SFO favorite for 18 years, as Doctor Bartolo; and American mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook as Berta. British bass Alastair Miles is less than satisfactory as Don Basilio. His La calunnia lacks authority, and he doesn't play the comedy as well as his colleagues do.
Completing the cast in fine style are American baritone John Autry as Fiorello, American baritone David Okerlund as an officer and Belgrade bass-baritone Bojan Knezevic in the non-singing but most amusing role of Ambrogio.
John Copley, who also directed the San Francisco Opera Center's production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia this past summer, tones down some of the excesses he brought to that production, generally keeping the stage business amusing. However, there are times when he transcends the bounds of good taste, as when an oversized thermometer is supposedly applied to Basilio's posterior. At other times his stage business distracts from the singing, especially in some of the ensembles.
Bruno Campanella's conducting is adequate. He yields the baton to Patrick Summers in several performances with a different cast this month.
On the whole, however, this is a delightful production, one that's high on musical values and comedy. It's a welcome addition to the season.
For more information, see the San Francisco Opera home page.