The Barber of Seville

Date: July 18, 2013
Conductor: Pier Giorgio Morandi
Production: Pier Francesco Maestrini
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

The Beijing Opera Festival continues with Barber, Rossini’s opera buffa that has graced opera houses for more than a century. Director Pier Francesco Maestrini offers a cartoonish vision of 17th century Seville fixated with organic modernism. Set designer Zhang Wu obliges, and creates something akin to a microcosm of Gaudi’s artistry. Buildings would bend and curl irrespective of perspective, as if viewing a version of Seville through an ambiguously curved mirror. Actors would inhabit the stage with outrageous postures and outsized movements as though Maestrini was to purposely redefine the perspectives between physical structures and those who live in them, a la Gaudi. Figaro was sung by Liao Changyong, an established baritone in Greater China who nevertheless found limited fame elsewhere. His voice was dependable and carried heft, but lacked an embellishing charisma that one would typically assign to Figaro. Take his all-important cavatina at his stage entrance: he sang almost every note without fault, delivered all the requisite dynamics, but seemed to languish dramatically, whether physically on stage or tonally as a voice. When the great Tito Gobbi attacked the same aria, he delivered with a fiery confidence and a kind of innocent humanity that seemed lacking in Liao’s roboticism and seeming indifference. In comparison, Geraldine Chauvet’s Rosina was more serviceable and more “human” as a Rossini voice. Antonino Siragusa was not my favorite bel canto singer, and he proved it here in Beijing with an uncharacteristic voice and a murky coloratura. All problems amplified when he attacked Almaviva’s final (optional) aria, “Cessa di più resistere”, which JDF revived to astounding success a few years ago and capable tenors tried to follow but rarely came close. This evening, Siragusa sounded hopelessly strained, with too much nasal congestion and not enough clarity in phrasing. In the technically impossible phrases in allegro, Siragusa was barely catching up to the music of the orchestra. To Siragusa’s credit, he provided slightly more visual drama than JDF’s “park and bark” by providing some authentic twist moves. Chen Peixin’s Basilio swamped the stage with clarity and stentorian heft, and proved catalytically comedic. And then there was Bruno Praticò. Praticò was supposed to appear in this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival, but had to bail out at the last minute, due to an alleged hip injury. The premier basso buffo of our age, with his deliberately Donald-Ducky walking posture, invoked laughter as the Doctor merely by walking across the stage. Perhaps due to age, his upper registers languished without bel canto’s requisite clarity, but his middle registers beamed with a punching firepower in forte and a careful embrace in piano. He even memorized a few Chinese words in his recitative, to the delirium of the capacity audience, some of whom couldn’t help but stood in a jaw-dropping awe as he counted, slowly but surely, and in Mandarin Chinese, the pieces of paper left by Rosina after she wrote that fateful letter to the Count. Barber rarely fails to invoke a jolly good mood, and this performance overall bears no exception.

Pier Francesco Maestrini's Barber in Beijing

Pier Francesco Maestrini’s Barber in Beijing.

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