Come and laugh, says Atlanta Opera’s ‘Barber of Seville’

Have you ever seen a production of “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” Giaochino Rossini’s beloved and ubiquitous opera, with Count Almaviva dressed as a hippie, prancing around while cradling a sitar? What about a showing where Don Basilio, played as Fonzie with a dash of “Anchorman”-era Paul Rudd smarminess, produces a microphone and begins a lounge-singer act in the middle of an aria? A “Barbiere” firmly planted in the 1960s with supertitles that explain the era as “B.C. (before cell phones)”?

Rossini’s opera is a comic farce, but productions have to hit all the right notes while making sure the pratfalls and the silliness have a point. At the opening night of the Atlanta Opera’s “Barber of Seville” on Saturday, the music at times was secondary to the comedy. The resplendent tenor Taylor Stayton (Almaviva) teamed up with an exquisite mezzo soprano Stephanie Lauricella (Rosina) as the shining lights in a show that focused on acting a fool —at times to the detriment of the music.

The opera’s plot is well-trodden territory. Almaviva masks his identity to get close to Rosina, with the help of the titular barber (Georgia’s own baritone Joseph Lattanzi). The problem is Rosina is basically under house arrest due to the watchful eye of her guardian, Dr. Bartolo (baritone Giovanni Romeo), who wants her love for himself. Basilio (bass-baritone David Crawford), another suitor, is background noise in the quest for love. In this telling of the tale, housekeeper Berta (an underutilized Cadie J. Bryan) makes cocktails and dusts coquettishly around the room. There’s also a blind butler who shuffles onstage and off from time to time. Silliness in spades.

Credit: Raftermen

Credit: Raftermen

But those aren’t even the most idiosyncratic parts of Atlanta Opera’s “Barber,” which comes to Atlanta in a production seen in 2014 at Opera Philadelphia and the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. The antagonist Bartolo, who in this version is a mid-century Italian ophthalmologist, at one point starts randomly crowing like a rooster. This happens before his fever dream featuring a bevy of life-size cockerel.

That’s the point, though. Tomer Zvulun, general and artistic director of the Atlanta Opera, imagined this season, the first back in the opera house due to the ongoing pandemic, as full of joy, humor and escapism. Next season will be the time for heady operas like “Madama Butterfly” and “Das Rheingold.” Michael Shell’s stage direction on Saturday embraced that instruction and cranked up the zaniness. (In a heartfelt but incongruously somber opening speech, Zvulun dedicated the show to the “millions of people currently suffering in Europe.”)

The costumes and production design reinforced this carefree, bubbly approach. With a stage design by Shoko Kambara and costumes by Amanda Seymour, the platform vibrated with midcentury-modern color. An Italian cool oozed from the set, giving a cinematic quality to the opera, which played out more like a screwball film than a theatrical work.

Credit: Raftermen

Credit: Raftermen

Some operagoers might find it hard to fully commit to the production’s escapist vibe because, in a sign of the times, the masks have come off both in the audience and onstage. While proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test is still required for admission to the Cobb Energy Centre, masks are now simply “encouraged,” and a large majority of patrons chose to go maskless. Patrons were told that due to poor ventilation in the pit, musicians, led by conductor Arthur Fagen, wore masks, and the crowd in the first three rows was required to mask up to protect the musicians. Even with stricter protocols in place, some patrons have been uneasy about returning to the theater — it’s hard to imagine how these changes could not impact attendance. (The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is also no longer requiring masks for concerts.) That being said, the house was reasonably full Saturday, so maybe the desire to get back out there and experience art like normal outweighs any health risks, whether real or simply implied.


“The Barber of Seville”

Additional performances 8 p.m. March 11 and 3 p.m. March 13. $45-$150. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 404-881-8885.