Everything about Austin Opera’s colorful production of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” exudes energy, from the music, conducted by Stephanie Rhodes Russell to the performances, which are without exception funny and memorable.
This production, originally by Michael Shell and stage directed for Austin Opera by Gregory Boyle, is set in a lively version of Spain populated by festive citizens including flamenco dancers, a stilt walker, and a cotton-candy salesman. The mise-en-scene, with costumes by Amanada Seymour and sets designed by Shoko Kambara, incorporates elements of 17th century dress, bold 1960s patterns, and nods to iconic surrealist Spanish films through recurring eye and rooster motifs.
Performing his famous aria “Largo al Factotum,” the titular barber, Figaro (baritone Emmett O’Hanlon), sweeps onto stage and steals the show, dripping with bravado. It’s easy to see why the opera’s hero, Count Almaviva (tenor Jack Swanson), turns to him, the most charismatic man in town, for advice.
A major part of the opera’s humor comes through the disguises Count Almaviva adopts in his attempts to get close to his beloved Rosina (soprano Lauren Snouffer). Almaviva’s impersonation of a drunk soldier sends the house into a riot. When the city guard piles in to break it up, they triple the scale of the spectacle and chaos. Fortunately, the Count, a celebrity in this world, is able to hold up a magazine with face on the cover and selectively reveal himself to the head officer (baritoneJake Skipworth), dodging trouble and turning the city guard against his rival (and Rosina’s possessive guardian), Doctor Bartolo (bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana).
When Count Almaviva returns as a chilled-out music instructor, wearing floral print and a leather vest, holding a sitar, and endlessly wishing pace, gioa (peace, joy) to an impatient Doctor Bartolo, the choice is so perfect it’s hard to believe the libretto wasn’t written with this hippie interpretation in mind. Trying to conduct a music lesson and simultaneously communicate with Rosina while Doctor Bartolo looks on, Almaviva commits to the silliness of the hippie character, contorting himself into yoga poses and waving sage around the room.
Rosina, meanwhile, is portrayed by Austin-born soprano Lauren Snouffer as strong-willed and impulsive. Eager to escape from the drudgery of helping with Doctor Bartolo’s optometrist’s practice, she is willing to make her own schemes to deceive the doctor and elope with the man she loves.
In scenes throughout “Barber of Seville,” Rossini and librettist Cesare Sterbini make use of characters’ long-windedness for laughs. In one instance, characters sing about the urgency they feel instead of running away, and end up trapped. In another, Rosina, Doctor Bartolo, Count Almaviva and Figario all implore Don Basilio (bass William Guanbo Su) to leave the house, but despite trying every technique in the book, from shunning to bribery, he lingers. As these scenes play on, the situations escalate, becoming more theatrical.
Austin Opera’s zany “Barber of Seville” plays up the opera’s farcical elements, and is full of surprises. At one point, the surrealist elements of the set design even come to life in a dream sequence featuring chicken-headed dancers. The buoyant music animates the comic plot, and every song is dazzling. It’s a truly delightful, can’t-miss production.
“The Barber of Seville” continues 7:30 p.m. Nov. 10 and 2:30 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Long Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets: austinopera.org