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Madison Opera: Rossini's "The Barber of Seville"

Rossini: The Barber of Seville

Figaro: Robert Orth, baritone
Count Almaviva: Don Bernardini, tenor
Rosina: Melanie Sonnenberg, mezzo-soprano
Doctor Bartolo: William Walker, bass
Don Basilio: Scott Wilde, bass
Berta: Laurie Poulson, soprano
Fiorello: David Hottman, bass
Madison Symphony Orchestra
Roland Johnson, conductor


What a pity that Rossini's The Barber of Seville is such a dippy opera, because the Madison Opera's performance of it Friday evening featured some extraordinarily good talent, the kind of singing and acting that might much better have been lavished on a work -- almost any work -- of greater musical merits. The Oscar Mayer Theatre was packed to the rafters with an appreciative audience who obviously enjoyed the sitcom-like story, the slapstick acting shtick, and the opera's tediously repetitious vocal style. Not for nothing is the famous overture identified with Bugs Bunny, after all.

The major role, Figaro, was acted and sung with enormous flair by Robert Orth, whose large, rich baritone and natural comedic talents made it one of the best Figaros I've seen. As the town's leading barber, Figaro has the right kind of access to serve him well (and profitably) in introducing his benefactor, Count Almaviva, to the object of his affections, Rosina. This is not an easy task, since Rosina is jealously protected by her guardian, Doctor Bartolo, who himself would like to marry her.

As Almaviva, tenor Don Bernardini's voice was light and flexible enough to manage the very florid, difficult part with ease. He must also play a rather different character, disguised as a substitute music teacher, so altering his voice as (I thought) to risk it for his later return to the Count's persona when he eventually claims Rosina's hand.

Mezzo-soprano Melanie Sonnenberg, making her debut with the Madison Opera, brought to the role of Rosina a less air-headed charm and sophistication than we usually see in it. Sonnenberg's very large and wide-ranged voice was at first not entirely under control, which threatened her performance of the famous first-act aria Una voce poco fa. She's a genuine mezzo, with the booming chest tones that recall the great Maureen Forrester. Sonnenberg managed the runs, ornaments, skips, and high notes of her role with evident confidence. As the second act unrolled, the voice steadied and smoothed out. A Rosina of this quality is a great achievement for any young singer.

William Walker, as Doctor Bartolo, certainly had a good grasp of the character's bumbling, pompous ways. His voice was a little clouded, I thought, as though he were doing his best to sing through a bad cold. Scott Wilde, as Basilio, the music teacher, sang very well, though he looked more like Rasputin than Basilio to me. Both Laurie Poulson (Berta) and David Hottmann (Fiorello/Sergeant) played their character roles with customary delight.

Roland Johnson lead the performance with a reasonably firm hand, quickly adjusting to the momentary excesses of singers hanging onto a note a little too long. Of course, nothing he could have done would have relieved the frustration of the tiresome, trite devices in the score itself. New to the Madison Opera, Robert Dooley's stage direction was everything one could ask for. Costumes, sets, and lighting were all suitable.

The program included a list of the Madison Opera's presentations going back to 1963. This appears to have been the first Barber of Seville they've undertaken. May it be the last, so that good singers and good actors can in future delight us with more musically fulfilling works. There are certainly many to choose from.

Isthmus, April, 1992
Copyright 1992 Jess Anderson

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