Houston Grand Opera’s new production of The Barber of Seville goes out of its way to inject fresh fun into Rossini’s best-known and most often produced opera.
The inventive and unpredictable treatment devised by director Joan Font and other artists of the Barcelona theater troupe Els Comediants usually succeeds in its mission — even if one questions a few devices that distract or simply mystify.
Yet even opera purists likely will enjoy the playful treatment, because with Leonardo Vordoni’s incisive conducting and a vocally proficient cast led by Nathan Gunn, Lawrence Brownlee and Ana Maria Martinez, the musical values are not short-changed — even if at one or two points they are upstaged visually.
And after all, the opera is a comedy. Cesare Sterbini’s neatly wrought libretto depicts Count Almaviva’s campaign to win the lovely Rosina, assisted by wily barber Figaro. The chief obstacle they must overcome is Rosina’s aged guardian, Dr. Bartolo, who wants to marry her himself.
Returning after their hit HGO staging of Rossini’s La Cenerentola in 2007, Font and the Els Comediants team apply their whimsical, antic touch to Barber in ways suggestive of commedia, vaudeville and silent screen clowning. A handful of nonspeaking actors play Bartolo’s servants, surrounding the main action with comic business, or enacting pantomime scenes that accompany several arias.
Font’s comic vision extends to the leads, their staging highly animated. Trilling away, the lovers may start to tremble along with their note. The characters at times break into vaudeville-style steps, courtesy of choreographer Xevi Dorca.
Designer Joan Guillen’s costumes create a slightly exaggerated, doll-like look, more so for comic grotesques Bartolo and Don Basilio. A few wild design flourishes are pure Dr. Seuss, like the enormous pink plumes that top the helmets of the choristers in the final scene. Guillen’s basic set is utilitarian, but he adds magic through fantastical accoutrements: a huge, pink grand piano that is a focal point, almost a stage within the stage at several points, and a lovely tree seen through a window and undergoing miraculous changes through Albert Faura’s lighting.
All the ingredients meld more tightly as the production advances. By the more consistent Act 2, you just go along with its flights and surprises, without question.
Brownlee proves an exceptional Almaviva, his vibrant tenor carrying with force, range and brightly ringing tone. He’s as adept at the ardently romantic moments as he is at the funny ones — even singing in a “comic” voice at times.
Gunn’s robust baritone, charisma and sly humor make him an ideal Figaro. He’s mischievous, full of himself — but never overdrawn, always amiable.
Martinez brings her secure, resonant soprano and winsome presence to Rosina — not as flashily vivacious as some, but warmly appealing.
As Bartolo, Patrick Carfizzi not only sings with immense power but is scene-stealingly funny. Also fine are Kyle Ketelsen’s Don Bartolo and Catherine Cook’s Berta.
Vordoni’s sensitive conducting (in his HGO debut) and the orchestra’s vivid yet nuanced playing are crucial to sustaining consistency even when this Barber is getting a little crazy on stage.
The Barber of Seville
7:30 p.m. Saturday and Nov. 4
2 p.m. Nov. 6 and 12