Wiener Staatsoper: Il Barbiere del Bel Canto

Debates rage about what "bel canto" really means. Is it a style, or a period, a technique? Does it apply to the Baroque period, to Mozart, only to Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini? How about Verdi, Verismo, and Wagner? There are lots of answers and lots of arguments on every side. In this case however, when I say this is the first bel canto opera I've seen at the Staatsoper I mean in the very limited sense that it is the first Rossini, Donizetti, or Bellini opera this season. The interesting thing about this production was the traditionalism in the way that it was presented. So much of what the Staatsoper produces is either modern in an abstract or interpretive way, or a traditional presentation infused with modern technology. This production both in its design and performance style.

General information & synopsis:


Michael Güttler | Dirigent
Günther Rennert | nach einer Inszenierung von
Richard Bletschacher | Regie
Alfred Siercke | Ausstattung

Antonino Siragusa | Graf Almaviva
Alfred Sramek | Bartolo, Doktor der Medizin
Rachel Frenkel | Rosina, dessen reiches Mündel
George Petean | Figaro, Barbier
Adam Plachetka | Basilio, Rosinas Musiklehrer
Clemens Unterreiner | Fiorello
Lydia Rathkolb | Marzellina
Wolfram Igor Derntl | Ein Offizier

The set for this production was in the more traditional style, using a solid wall, about midstage, in front of which, and inside of which, the action occurred. This wall presented the façade of Bartolo's house. The house was divided into a grid of nine squares. Two of the squares, the upper corners, remained always closed. The four squares beneath concealed different rooms, the music room and the sitting room on the first floor, and Rosina's room and the Bartolo's study on the second. The middle column of squares had two balconies that were always open and the entryway, closed by doors, beneath. These relatively static, fairly simple sets, though perhaps not as interesting as more modern sets, are definitely easier to create and utilize. Also, singers appreciate this style of set because it makes the back wall of the theatre that much closer and creates a sort of diaphragm to project their singing forward, helping them carry over the orchestra. This set did have some innovation, however. It was cool how the doors of the building could open but yet the entire three squares of the bottom row could also be pulled  back to open up the entire bottom floor. Also, the two outside squares on the second level could retract upwards, allowing visual access to those rooms. This set was, indeed, simpler and less revolutionary than many at the Staatsoper. Nonetheless, given the content of Il barbiere di Siviglia and the acting style of the production, it felt like it actually fit well and enhanced the production as a whole. 

Both Wolfram Igor Derntl and Clemens Uterreiner sang very well. Derntl's main function as Ein Offizier was as a form of comic relief. He was able to enter the stage self-importantly, bellowing about his function and about arrests, but then be immediately and summarily stopped by Almaviva and having to back down. Still, his voice was well suited to this, and his acting in the character role was perfect. Incidentally, Uterreiner's performance with a slightly lighter bass voice also served a comic purpose as a sort of sideshow. The fact that the production played this up added to the sense of playfulness that so often suffuses bel canto comedy.

Lydia Rathkolb's voice functioned somewhat oddly in the role of Marzelline. Most of her lines were relatively short, but she played them with excellent comedic effect. When called upon to sing coloratura of her own at greater length, she also performed admirably. The odd thing is that she possessed a pillowy warmth and a vocal size and depth unexpected for a comprimario role, especially one in Rossini repertoire. There wasn't exactly a problem with this, though it made the coloratura feel a little less clean, and it also made her voice oddly louder than Rachel Frenkel's in the more important role of Rosina (this could be merely that Frenkel is a mezzo-soprano, but one would expect the voice to be larger to compensate for whatever additional cut Rathkolb might have. Instead, it seemed that Rathkolb just overpowered her). Lastly, there were high notes from time to time that she was very clearly reaching for, giving the sense of a pinched top.

Adam Plachetka, as with every role in which I have seen him perform, brought a rich, ringing Kavalierbariton to Basilio. It was his acting, making Basilio seem like a somewhat eccentric gay man, that really brought home his comedic performance. His voice was large and ringing, easily carrying over the orchestra. Also, despite his vocal size and strong, ringing color, his coloratura, particularly in the aria "La calunnia è un venticello," which was incredibly well performed, bringing together excellent singing, vocal acting, and physical acting. The role of Basilio is not critical enough to bring home an entire night's performance. Nonetheless, if there was one stellar performer who ascended to truly excellent heights, it was Plachetka as Basilio. On a broader level, it is remarkable that he can be both a very manly Don Giovanni and a gay Basilio.

Bartolo, played by Alfred Sramek, was a late bloomer. This fact is, in part, due to Rossini's writing. Bartolo has relatively few lines prior to his aria "A un dottor della mia sorte" late in the first act. Throughout Sramek played excellently to the Bartolo's relatively dull intellect (whether through age or inherently) mixed with paranoia (justified, as it happens) about his ward. Little things, like his making sure the door locked three times, and the way he playfully, yet firmly treated Rosina as he tried to understand and thwart her games with him, made his acting agreeable to the role. His singing was not particularly thrilling at any time. Despite, one of the great misunderstandings is that a voice doesn't have to be thrilling, big, or even beautiful, it simply has to be cast correctly. I wouldn't want to see him as a menacing villain like Méphistophélès, but for the tired Bartolo, who is trying to protect his ward and has to work even to express his desire for her, his voice was quite fitting.

I found Rachel Frenkel to be an agreeable, but not superb Rosina. Her voice was even and pretty enough, but not gorgeous, lacking some... silver, or special zing of some kind. Her coloratura efforts were sufficient to make it through the line, but it often felt like she was always out of breath. I do not mean to say that she was actually running out of breath, because it was not at the end of lines where the sensation occurred, rather, it was a consistent feeling throughout the line. The top was not pinched quite in the way that Rathkolb's was (indeed, I imagine if the top isn't there the role is inaccessible). Still, it wasn't the thrilling fireworks with seemingly effortless high notes and a piercing (yet hopefully not tinny or thin) tone. The most exposing place for this was, of course, the famous "Una voce poco fa" Rosina, as an ingenue role, allows for unfortunately less imaginative acting than many of the other roles in the opera. Nonetheless, I think in this aspect Frenkel did well. In fact, I came out of the opera feeling for Bartolo because Frenkel's portrayal of Rosina was so desultory and difficult!

Antonio Siragusa, as Count Almaviva, fit his role perfectly, yet felt a bit less than excellent. The role of Almaviva is incredibly difficult, requiring an excellent mastery of coloratura and great flexibility in the voice. Siragusa's ability to sing through the role, especially in difficult extended coloratura passages, without missing notes or "cheating" by running things together a bit, particularly in arias like "Ecco ridente in cielo" and "Cessa di piú resistere" was very impressive. One of my compatriots remarked that it was as though Siragusa had no passaggio or, in a sense, that he seemingly had to make no modifications. (An interesting comparison here is to Giuseppe di Stefano who rarely, if ever, modified through the passaggio and ruined his voice because of it. di Stefano used a different technique and also was singing much bigger repertoire. I don't think it will damage Siragusa, but it does cause issues with his extreme upper range, if in an opposite way to di Stefano.) 
The problem with this lack of modification was that while it was very effective and made the voice feel seamless through the vast majority of phrases and coloratura, when he finally did modify around Bb or higher, the voice sounded a bit smothered and the high notes were not as free and ringing as we expect from a bel canto tenor. Siragusa's tone is very forward and has enough squillo to be heard at all times, even though the voice is not large. He falls into the trap (though, perhaps unfortunately, I think naturally, not due to technical problems) of sounding a bit thin and biting. Even the paragon tenor of the repertoire, Juan Diego Florez, frequently is criticized for this. To take a moderate position, Florez has a vibrant ping to his voice that thrills and, in his repertoire, a warmer sound is maybe not as necessary as in later Romantic repertoire. Siragusa does not have the greater depth, and his forward tone, while still having squillo, lacks that thrill to its ring. Still, Siragusa's ability to handle the repertoire was amazing, and he certainly deserves credit for his performance in the role. Oddly, in costume at least, he both resembled physically and in some respects vocally Alfredo Kraus. His acting was also versatile, moving between a man smitten by a woman, a count playing a role, a count being a count, and a man of good camaraderie with friends. Siragusa may not be outstanding, but he would certainly be a valuable singer in most productions.

George Petean's Figaro was easy to like and hard to love. It was clear that Petean's voice was large. Larger, in fact, than I expected for a baritone in this repertoire. Unfortunately, it seemed to lack any manner of cut. Once the orchestra reached a certain threshold, it drowned him out. The nice thing about Petean, however, was that because of this large, warm tone, he was pleasant to listen to throughout the opera. This also gave him the kind of accessibility and personableness that you expect from your barber-factotum. Some of his acting was a bit stylized, but that wasn't exactly a problem given the nature of this production. Petean's top was also very easy and balanced in tone, allowing him at times to even share notes with Siragusa's Almaviva in unison. One of the things that also made Petean hard to hear was the quick patter of lyrics that are necessary for the role. It's inevitably difficult to make these audible over the orchestra, but Petean's voice simply did not carry in these moments (along with not carrying at the heights of orchestral fortissimo). It's a problem that can potentially be worked out by staging, but it's also a technique issue, since Rossini intended the lyrics to be heard but scored it as he did. Petean was a very likable Figaro who managed the role ably and was fun to watch as he acted, going from one character to another and, with big gestures, bending them to his charisma. I just wish he had been a bit more audible.

Perhaps one of the notable things about this production of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia were some of the staging decisions. It was great to have people arrive from offstage in the orchestra pit. Also, the almost slapstick interactions between the main characters helped to add to the comedy and remind us of the original performance style of the bel canto repertoire. This also allowed the performers to interact with the audience and the theatre. For instance, the presence of the prompter was acknowledged, which adds to comedy but is certainly a breaking of the fourth wall. I found that all of these things, along with the traditional set, let me almost go back in time and imagine I were watching the opera long ago, almost as it was originally envisioned.


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