In the middle of a Sunday night snowstorm, tenors, altos, and sopranos trickle into the Northside Community Church. The singers introduce themselves enthusiastically, unwrap their scarved throats, and file into the first few rows. I sit in a pew just behind the bass section, close enough to read the sheet music over broad shoulders: The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini. The Comic Opera Guild will be premiering its version at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre February 25-27, with direction by Mitchell Gillett.
Based on the 1775 play by Pierre Beaumarchais, Barber tells the story of Count Almaviva’s quest for the hand of Rosina, a comely pupil living under the roof of her teacher, the watchful Doctor Bartolo, who plans to have her for himself. With the hired help of Figaro, the devious barber of Seville, Almaviva puts on masks and pulls off schemes to get past Bartolo’s door.
The Comic Opera Guild chose Barber because it’s relatively short, genuinely funny, and accessible to theatergoers not otherwise inclined toward opera. While many opera companies are building modern sets to win the favor of newer generations, COG has a different approach: English. Instead of having to read surtitles and getting the joke five seconds after it’s been sung, patrons can appreciate innuendo, alliteration, and rhyme schemes in their native tongue. COG’s managing director, Thomas Petiet (who will also be performing), has translated the book in a way that accentuates rather than restricts the singers’ voices–something often lost in libretto translations by nonmusicians.
Audiences can expect a harpsichord, dirty linen, humor, and harmony. Principal roles are double cast. The Rosinas are delightfully rebellious; the deep bass of both Bartolos have the authority of a lion’s roar; the tenor voices of Count Almaviva are pure as his love for Rosina; and the Figaro I witnessed in early rehearsals is playful and forthright with his motives: “money for fashion, money forever, money’s my passion; what can I say?”
The esteemed Nada Radakovich conducts. At the flick of her wrist, all mouths open simultaneously. The sound is soft yet powerful, layered, open-voweled, and fluttering. Radakovich compares singing Rossini to flying–all that ornamentation, all that feeling.
Rossini is famous for the bel canto form of the early nineteenth century. As Petiet explains, where Shakespeare’s era stuffed its text with words, the bel canto style, which translates literally to “beautiful singing,” was packed with notes. A one-syllable word easily becomes a five-syllable sound.
Soon after the Count refers to Bartolo as “Doctor Demented,” the full company sings “We’ll go to prison” in a heavy wave of choral harmony. That’s the charm of comic opera. The libretto will have you laughing, and, in a beat, the music will carry you away.