Photo: Bill Brymer
A stage with sets adorned with paintings in the style of romance book covers, and other kinds of Pop art. Costumes outfitted with geometric shapes reminiscent of a Piet Mondrian painting. These were prominent images in Kentucky Opera’s new production of “The Barber of Seville” that opened Friday.
Still, the vocal power on display pushed Rossini’s opera set in the mid-1960s into high gear due to a strong cast.
Careful comedic timing and the bustling movement blended to bring this opera’s recognized music into its own element — even though the overture makes many Americans think of Bugs Bunny.
Director Matthew Ozawa has created new backdrops here — a film set where the Brown Theatre stage becomes a sound stage and filmmakers surround the performers with the opera being made into a movie. But soon the filmmakers hardly attract attention.
What does demand attention are the hijinks and singing. Baritone Will Liverman, as the spry and clever barber named Figaro, makes his mark and first impression in “Largo al factotum.” (Yes, in this famous aria he brags about his work and sings his name three times.) Liverman is on task with this tongue twister hitting the notes and taking some fun spins with Ozawa’s choreography.
Even before Figaro’s entrance, the audience meets the lovers — Rosina (Megan Marino) and Count Almaviva (John Irvin) — and hears Rosina’s aria “Una voce poco fa.” She avows she will be with Almaviva despite all attempts of her guardian, Dr. Bartolo (Dale Travis), and others to thwart their union.
Rosina, who first appears on a balcony in her skivvies, confirms that vow throughout the opera. Mezzo-soprano Marino, who portrays her, proves her vocal prowess in that first aria. But she also sustains power throughout the production all the while nimbly signing Rossini’s swift and aerobatic music.
Liverman and Marino have more than vocal chops. Their comedic fortes shine here with director Ozawa encouraging a lot of physical humor in their characters. Marino’s Rosina is particularly funny in how she holds a cigarette in a devil-may-care manner while harboring a steely resolve when other men come to try to possess her.
Liverman always seems to be in on a secret with the audience as Figaro and he uses it to strengthen his rapport with those beyond the footlights. Figaro is a true capitalist here among the aristocrats, who are all a bit daft. Liverman mines these insights with small gestures and expressions.
The funnyman who blooms throughout is bass-baritone Dale Travis as Dr. Bartolo — the creep who has been Rosina’s guardian and now secretly plans to marry her. Ick! (She learns of this plan and thinks so, too.) Travis takes on the buffoon to near perfection with his self-important attitude and obsession to control Rosina. His voice even dazzles when he is given the chance to briefly sing falsetto.
As, Count Almaviva, Irvin gets to deliver his more comedic parts later in the opera. For the most part, his performance and his solid tenor act give the production a foundation and a character with a sense of sanity. Only when Almaviva is forced to adapt to wacky ways to get to Rosina is he able to enter her world and help her escape it.
Ozawa worked with set designer Andrew Boyce, a veteran of many Actors Theatre of Louisville productions (“Macbeth,” “Luna Gale,” “The Mountaintop,” “The Whipping Man”) and costumer designer Sally Dolembo to create this onstage flashback from 50 years ago.
Ozawa’s program notes cited his inspiration as Federico Fellini’s 1963 film “8½” and the works of surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel. While Ozawa tapped into some subtexts, the production has no surrealistic explosions.
Ozawa primarily stuck to “The Barber of Seville” as a comedy, but mined one crack at end of the first act. That’s after Almaviva makes his first attempt to liberate Rosina disguised as a drunken soldier and has created a public nuisance bringing a score of soldiers to the residence. Before the curtain falls, all the men who have amassed in Dr. Bartolo’s home reveal black-and-white pictures of Rosina, held with handles as if they are masks.
The opera’s traditional chaotic moment at the end of act one provoked pause to think of the intangible of love, possessing another human being and ideas of self-determination. That moment is inclined to set a mind springing to other thoughts regarding this juncture of our society and the social and economic status of women.
That can be heady stuff for a more-than-200-year-old opera that makes people think about Bugs Bunny when they hear it today.
Then again, it isn’t all that surprising for given this opera’s history — as it is based on a play by Pierre Beaumarchais. This Frenchman, the son of a watchmaker, funneled money and arms to the American Revolutionary War and supported revolution in his own country.
Kentucky Opera will present “The Barber of Seville” at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 18, at The Brown Theatre, 315 W. Broadway. An opera preview will be presented one hour before the performance in the Brown Theatre Rehearsal Hall. An Opera Talk Back with conductors, stage directors and artists will take place after the performance in the Brown Theatre’s first-floor conference room. More information can be found here.