Giovanni Paisiello: Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Rossini was ruthless,
rippling off swaths of both Paisiello’s libretto and his music. This
infuriated diehard Paisiello fans, whose cries of anger famously caused the
1816 premiere of Rossini’s opera to flop. Yet they could not keep a good work
down for long. Rossini trumps his predecessor at every turn: his music has
greater vitality, originality and wit, and his dramatic conception imbues the
stock characters of Italian commedia dell’arte with a universal
humanity that we still recognize today.

This famous history poses a psychological problem for any listener at a rare
revival of Paisiello’s opera: how can one avoid keeping score? One is
constantly tempted to engage in number-by-number comparison with the more
famous version, which distracts from the virtues of the earlier one. After all,
Paisiello’s Barbiere was famous for a reason: it is a minor
masterpiece on its own terms, with simplicity of musical expression, directness
of utterance and suave 18th century gentility all its own.

10-OSO-BARBER-LIBRARY.pngDavid Blalock as Count Almaviva

A recent production at On Site Opera in New York achieved the
seemingly impossible. The performance I attended on June 11th was so
fresh, original and immediate that, within minutes, it banished any thought of
Rossini from my mind.

Much of the success was due to the magic of in situ performance,
which is the calling card of this company: its productions are set in
appropriate “everyday” spaces throughout New York, where singers perform
just a few feet from a small audience. This Barbiere was presented in
and around the lovely Fabbri Mansion on East 95th Street, built in
Italian Renaissance style. For the first scene, an audience of just 80 was
seated in a small front courtyard. Figaro and Almaviva entered through a front
ironwork gate, Bartolo peered out of the front door of the mansion, and Rosina
sang from a second-story window. We then moved upstairs to a balconied
Italianate library room that might have been in Pesaro, Parma or Seville.
Throughout, there were no sets and few props, just this appropriate setting.
All this seemed just right for an opera written for audiences of a few hundred
gathered in small theaters, often in mansions or palaces. Though the
combination of intimate surroundings, superb diction and fine acting all but
dispensed with any need for supertitles, they were provided on modest HD

14-OSO-BARBER-LIBRARY.pngMonica Yunus as Rosina and David Blalock as Count Almaviva

To revive a second-tier opera in an intimate setting, a company needs
singing actors who are completely secure technically and credible, musically
and dramatically, even with spectators just three feet away. Credit for the
brilliant success of this production is thus due, above all, to the cast.
Despite oppressive 90+ degree heat, they rendered this opera as fresh and
immediate as it must have appeared to listeners in Paisiello’s heyday. The
performers, mostly in their 30s with solid national and international
successes, seemed to revel in the challenge, responding with completely
credible singing and acting.

Andrew Wilkowske’s warm and full-voiced baritone was well-suited to his
charismatic and characterful portrayal of Figaro. His voice sounds like it has
the potential to evolve into the rarest of all things in modern opera: a great
Verdi baritone. Soprano Monica Yunus made a winning Rosina. She succeeded
almost entirely in warming up an essentially lyric coloratura voice to fit this
more lyric role—musically and dramatically, Paisiello’s Rosina is more
pensive and less forward than Rossini’s—aided by exceptionally lovely
breath control and phrasing. As Almaviva, tenor David Blalock looked the part
and sang competently, though he struggled at times to generate an appropriately
light and warmly elegant tone, for example in Lindoro’s serenade (in the
18th century, the opera’s most famous number). Bass Rod Nelman
blustered his way through Bartolo’s travails with a focused, brilliant tone,
while bass-baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala acted and sang well in the part of his
buddy Basilio, paying scrupulous attention to Paisiello’s dynamics in the big
aria, which are subtler than those of Rossini. Baritone Benjamin Bloomfield and
Jessica Rose Futran rendered the servant’s slapstick credible, with the
former deploying an extraordinarily large voice and the latter a voice
noticeably smaller than those around her.

The orchestra was a slimmed down to eight and played under the inspired direction of Geoffrey McDonald. A few intonation issues aside, inevitable at that scale and with different environments, the players were skilled and energetic. The musical preparation was superb. At no moment did the flow of the music threaten to fray, despite the extraordinary challenges of conducting a group of singers often facing away from the conductor.

Overall I enjoyed this evening as much as any live opera I’ve attended in the last decade. The performance captured the spirit of the work. I was surely not alone: I looked around the room as we exited and everyone was smiling. More than that, this performance spoke to the state of opera as an art form. As larger companies like the Met, just across the park, continues to struggle with resources and relevance, smaller companies like On Site Opera are experimenting with performance in non-traditional spaces, generally at something closer to the scale at which these many works were historically meant to be heard. Perhaps they are have found a viable route back to the future.

Andrew Moravcsik

image_description=Andrew Wilkowske as Figaro and Monica Yunus as Rosina [Photo by Rebecca Fay]
product_title=Giovanni Paisiello: Il Barbiere di Siviglia
product_by=A review by Andrew Moravcsik
product_id=Above: Andrew Wilkowske as Figaro and Monica Yunus as Rosina

Photos by Rebecca Fay