• “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” at the Mendocino Music Festival (July 17, 2015)

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    Figaro: Eugene Brancoveanu

    Rosina: Nikki Einfeld

    Count Almaviva: Chester Pidduck

    Dr. Bartolo: Igor Vieira

    Don Basilio: Dennis Rupp

    Berta: Adina Dorband

    Officer: James Russell

    Figaro’s Assistant: Elleanna Brancoveanu

    Conductor: Allan Pollack

    Production: Eugene Brancoveanu


    (Almost a month – this is probably the latest one of my reviews has ever been. I suppose that’s what happens when you’re swamped with grad school work. Click here for the YA literature blog I had to create for my most recent Library Science course, which is what’s kept me away from this blog for so long.)


    Figaro seems to have taken over California this year! First there was the Figaro Unbound festival in LA, then Mozart’s Figaro in San Francisco, and now Barbiere in Mendocino!


    This marks the second time in my life that I’ve seen an intimate, low-budget small town production of an opera just months after seeing a grand, star-studded rendition of the same piece in LA. (The first time was the two Bohémes of 2012.) Once again, I enjoyed the smaller production every bit as much as the bigger production, even though the latter’s quality was more “professional.”


    Of the three Mendocino opera productions I’ve seen so far, this one was the most traditional: not that it was traditional exactly, but it was the most traditional. Dr. Bartolo’s house was represented by a large elevated box at center stage, with the rest of the stage serving as the street. Inside the box were various generic furniture items, all vaguely 18th century looking (except for one anachronistic multicolored throw rug, which various characters ended up wearing at different times). The costumes were likewise 18th century fashion, albeit a very simplified, “high school drama club” version of it. In his pre-performance lecture, Eugene Brancoveanu explained that his goal in this production was to evoke the low-budget, improvised, slapdash nature of the commedia dell’arte plays that inspired the Figaro Trilogy. He certainly did. But compared to last year’s Don Giovanni and 2013’s Il Signor Bruschino, not to mention the wild and wacky Emilio Sagi Barbiere I saw earlier this year at the LA Opera, this Barbiere was decidedly less quirky.


    Not that there was zero quirkiness: this was Mendocino, after all! As (undoubtedly) in those scrappy, improvised commedia dell’arte plays of yesteryear, there was no shortage of of fourth-wall breaking and irreverent hilarity. As Bartolo searched for Rosina’s dropped letter, the orchestra played the “Jeopardy” theme. When the ostinato for “Se il mio nome” began, the Count started to sing “Una furtiva lagrima” instead, until Figaro reminded him “Rossini.” Bartolo kept his work desk stocked with pills and strong liquors, to which the members of his household (and Figaro) helped themselves throughout the opera to calm their nerves. Instead of the standard fake moustache or beard, the Count’s soldier disguise featured mummy-like swathes of bloody bandages as if his face were horrifically injured, while as “Don Alonso” he handed out communion wafers to everyone, even tossing them into the audience. And the shaving scene somehow devolved into Bartolo giving Figaro a back massage, which was why Figaro let his guard down long enough for Bartolo to overhear the Count. I’m sure that music scholars who decry the constant “cheapening” of Rossini’s comedies and long for “elegance” would be disgusted by the irreverence and slapstick in this production. But it had the audience in stitches, and in Mendocino, what else can you expect?


    As in last year’s Don Giovanni and as is probably the case with most Mendocino operas, the score was cut heavily and there was no chorus. In the opening scene, only two musicians appeared to accompany the Count’s serenade – two decrepit, slovenly-looking men with only a trumpet and a pair of maracas, which both turned out to be defective when they tried to play them. The Count promptly sent them on their way with a few coins, then turned to the conductor (situated just behind the stage) and paid him to accompany “Ecco ridente” instead. Naturally, the post-aria “Mille grazie” chorus was cut. Later, only one officer came to Bartolo’s house to restore order instead of an entire police force. “Cessa di piú resistere” was also cut (no surprise), as were long swathes of recitative.


    Doing double duty as both stage director and Figaro, Eugene Brancoveanu owned the show in every possible way. His Figaro was exuberant, hilarious and sumptuous-voiced from beginning to end – unlike some other Figaros, he never faded into the background in favor of the young lovers. Which isn’t to say that the lovers were lacking in any way whatsoever. Nikki Einfeld was an excellent soprano Rosina, singing with a bright, agile, sweet-tart sound a la Renata Scotto and offering no shortage of feisty mischief. Chester Pidduck, a last-minute yet effortless substitute for another tenor, was equally endearing as Count Almaviva, with a crystalline tenor leggiero that only turned slightly weak in the upper register and humor to spare. Igor Vieira was a flawlessly funny, blustering, patter-tossing Bartolo, only slightly light voiced for the role, and while Dennis Rupp’s Don Basilio was plagued by the same vocal fuzziness that undermined his Leporello last year, his comic characterization lacked nothing. Adina Dorband, unrecognizable in her old-age makeup as last year’s pretty Zerlina, was a flawless comically-serious Berta, dourly shuffling through every scene (and even the pre-performance lecture) until she finally showed off her vocal chops in “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie.” Scene-stealing was also provided in Act I by Brancoveanu’s 12-year-old daughter Elleanna, who played a silently exasperated assistant to Figaro. (She was also the girl in the framing scenes of last year’s Don Giovanni, which I hadn’t known until now.) Allan Pollack’s conducting was sometimes slow, but always musical and full of life. One clarinet (I think it was) sounded annoyingly out-of-tune at the start of the opera, but by the end of Act I that problem was resolved.


    This intimate, scrappy and joyous performance was everything I hoped it would be. It was just quirky enough to feel Mendocino-like yet just traditional enough to be effective for first-time operagoers, and the performers were first-rate. I only hope that the opera at next year’s festival, whatever it is, turns out to be equally good.


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