Long Beach Opera

Everybody knows that Giovanni Paisiello’s “Barber of Seville” of 1782 isn’t a patch, comedically or musically, on the more famous Rossini opera of 34 years later. Still, the early work has a great deal of charm, and more than a few moments of genuine high style; it takes a real effort to suppress this opera’s many virtues. In its new production, unveiled Saturday night as the first in a cycle of entertainments¬† based on the plays of Caron de Beaumarchais, the Long Beach Opera almost succeeded in this regard. In the end Paisiello won out — but barely.
The destruction was spearheaded by two visiting, but hardly flying Dutchmen, director Hans Nieuwenhuis and designer Paul Gallis, both of them working under the familiar if deplorable delusion that small jokes can become twice as funny when made into large jokes. Just the opposite, actually, happens to be true. Dear, sweet Paisiello and his modest but shapely comedy simply groaned under the weight of the stage gimmickry, none of it particularly funny, some of it particularly embarrassing.
Example: every scene was framed by a recurrent bit of pantomime, not mentioned in either play or opera, wherein Count Almaviva, and the Rosina he will win during the course of the evening, sit at a wedding feast. The table pops up from the stage floor and then pops down again (with a loud clunk); it is the approximate width of the stage so that the nuptial couple are separated by vast space — like Citizen and Mrs. Kane in Xanadu. A group of flunkies serve the dinner; the menu is even listed in the program. But the food is whisked away after the first bite. Why bother?
Example: Rosina and Dr. Bartolo make their first entrances on His-and-Her balconies, suspended gondolas that resemble heavy traffic on a ski lift. Rosina, on her entrance, is watering a plant, with real water. Accidentally, she misses the plant and waters the waiting Almaviva down below. That gets a laugh, so you know she’s going to do it again. She does it again.
Example: the credit-card gag; the electronic-keyboard gag for the Lesson Scene; the bursting-balloon gag for Michael Gallup’s “Scandal” aria…but why go on? Director Nieuwenhuis has burdened a perfectly fine musical conception with a repertory of stage shtik that merely clutters the opera and which, furthermore, his cast cannot manage very well.
This is an¬† adequate singing ensemble, sometimes more than that. But it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the director, or to anyone else, that high comedy — or even low comedy posing as high — can work only when there is a meticulously devised, consistent acting style. Maybe, with guidance, someone might have shown Don Bernardini, the Almaviva, or Kathryn Gamberoni, the Rosina, the difference between fine comic acting and mere mugging. Apparently, nobody did.
And so, the chance to rediscover a sweet little comic almost-masterpiece, with some moments of ensemble writing that surely guided Mozart’s pen in his own Italian comedies, has been weakened in one of the Long Beach Opera’s rare miscalculations of the past few years. Not all is lost, however. Nicholas McGegan’s splendid little orchestra contributes a fine, forthright crackle that moves matters past even the most abject stage business.
No opera with Michael Gallup, furthermore, can be all bad; his strong, forthright Basilio could, with proper thinking-out, have been the bulwark for a solid, truly comic evening. So could the bright, mostly appealing Figaro of John Fanning and the Bartolo of David Evitts, a creation unusually responsive to the sadder aspects of this foolish figure. Gamberoni’s Rosina began badly, with the voice little more than a squeak in the first couple of scenes. But her big Lesson-Scene aria got her back on the track, and her angry outburst near the opera’s end was superfine.¬†
But the cause of the Paisiello “Barber” was lost early on, and remained just out of reach during the long evening. Oh well, this slender, slight opera may have been an easy one to push over. Next weekend comes “The Marriage of Figaro,” an indestructible masterwork and, thus, a far more formidable challenge to forces of destruction. Go to it, Long Beach!
THE BARBER OF SEVILLE, opera in two acts by Giovanni Paisiello, libretto by Giuseppe Petrosellini, from the Beaumarchais play. Produced by the Long Beach Opera, directed by Hans Nieuwenhuis, designed by Paul Gallis, conducted by Nicholas McGegan. At the Center Theater, Long Beach Convention Center. Remaining performances: 5/10 and 5/14 at 8, 5/27 at 2; tickets $10-$50; information 596-5556.
Figaro………John Fanning
Almaviva………Don Bernardini
Rosina………..Kathryn Gamberoni
Bartolo……….David Evitts
Basilio………..Michael Gallup