I’m going to confess this right up front. My knowledge of opera is based mainly on memories of old Looney Tunes cartoons. And among all the arias and overtures that accompanied the antics of Bugs Bunny and pals, perhaps none is more famous than the overture from The Barber of Seville – played above as Bugs the barber massages Elmer Fudd’s head.
So you can imagine how thrilled I was to recognize the overture in the Vancouver Opera’s new production of Barber of Seville, running at Queen Elizabeth Theatre through March 25. Even for opera virgins, the Barber holds plenty of charms. If you’re thinking about seeing one opera this year (or this lifetime), this could be the one.
Part of the whole appeal is the ambiance. The opera is one of the few places anywhere in Vancouver where people can still get really, really dressed up. Before the show, the lobby is filled with women in slinky black evening gowns and guys wearing bow ties (OK . . . and plenty of people in jeans and Converse, too).
Then there’s the excitement in the theatre before the show starts: the orchestra tuning up, the lights going down and the expectant silence before the curtain rises.
With The Barber of Seville, you don’t have to wait long for the big guns. The opera begins with the classic overture. And the first act reaches a crescendo with Largo al Factorum, i.e. the instantly recognizable “Figaro” aria. Here’s a classic rendition:
For opera newbies, it also helps that The Barber of Seville – composed by the great Gioachino Rossini in 1816 – is the consummate example of a comic opera, or as the Italians say, opera buffa. It’s a farce – ridiculous, silly and hard not to love. There are mistaken identities, misunderstandings and – of course – a crazy quest to get the girl at all costs.
The Vancouver Opera took some liberties and translated the setting of Barber to a 1940s movie studio in Spain. This gives the cast free rein to incorporate all of the wacky props and costumes you might expect at a movie studio. The result is a visually appealing set and brilliant action sequences – full of colour and movement.
One heads up: If you go, prepare yourself for a long evening. The opera, with intermission, comes in at nearly three hours. But even when the story gets a little weak in the second and third acts, what rescues the opera from tedium is the famous barber himself, the character of Figaro. Equal parts matchmaker and troublemaker, Figaro – played by Canada’s own Joshua Hopkins – is irresistible: provocative, timeless and impossible to pin down.
Anyone else see the Vancouver Opera’s Barber of Seville? What did you think?