You won't find Elmer Fudd singing kill the waaaabbitt, kill the waabbit at Houston Grand Opera's rock-and-roll staging of Gioacchino Rossini's Barber of Seville. This production is its own animal. But with or without updating, the brilliant 1816 comic opera -- featuring Rossini's beloved score and Cesare Sterbini's madcap libretto -- can stand on its own. It's a fabulous, feel-good opera that's easily one of the most entertaining and accessible around, despite being sung in Italian. (With all the show's mugging and chasing, you hardly need the English surtitles to tell you what's going on. But read them anyway, as they are, like, way cool, and not always a literal translation of the singing.)
Just in case you aren't familiar with the plot -- or in case someone out there actually thinks it's the same as Chuck Jones's Bugs Bunny masterpiece, the 1950 cartoon Rabbit of Seville -- let's recap. Wealthy Count Almaviva loves young Rosina. He tries to woo her with musicians under her window to no avail. Along comes the barber Figaro who, for a price, aids the count. Figaro advises Almaviva to sing to his beloved, pretending to be a poor student. The ruse works, and Rosina begins to respond to the count. But then she's locked in her room by her guardian, Dr. Bartolo, who, by the way, wants more than just to guard her.
What follows is many an attempt on the part of Figaro and the count to gain entry into the house. Figaro manages to enter and passes messages between lovers. He also convinces the count to pretend to be a drunken soldier -- and, later, the substitute for Rosina's music teacher Basilio -- to get inside. There are several plot twists, but eventually the doctor tries to force Rosina to wed him. After a midnight break-in, several bribes and much confusion, there's a final revelation between the count and Rosina. It all ends with a wedding and much happiness and -- surprise, surprise -- nobody dies in this opera.
The Barber of Seville
Wortham Theater Center's Brown Theater, 500 Texas
Through May 15; 713-228-OPERA. $19-$254
The plot's enough to make the show plenty entertaining. But you know things have gone crazy when Almaviva drives on stage in a candy-apple-red 1964 Buick Electra 225 and his musicians are a mariachi band, a string quintet, a blues trio and what looks to be the Beatles, circa Sgt. Pepper. Australian director Lindy Hume has decided to set this production in an American pop culture-themed 1950s-era Seville, replete with pompadours, guitars, pink Barbie house-type revolving sets and Elvis posters. Figaro himself is a toss-up between Elvis, with his sideburns and hip swivel, and Warren Beatty in Shampoo. He arrives decked out in a silver sharkskin jacket riding a Vespa, adding a Vegas styling to the famous "Largo al factotum." (You know this song, yes you do: It goes Figaro, Fiigaro, Fiiiiiiiiigaro.)
Hume doesn't tinker with the good doctor much, but for some strange (albeit hilarious) reason -- is this the '50s, the '60s or the '70s? -- she and fellow Aussie costume designer Dan Potra have made Don Basilio a Dr. Frank-N-Furter wannabe right out of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Basilio does a little Transylvania gyration and flashes his high heels and fishnet stockings from under his clerical robes. Other fun bits include a Charlie's Angels cameo and a portrait hanging over the piano in the doctor's music room that strongly resembles HGO general director David Gockley. Potra has done a wonderful job with the vintage costumes and the sets, which revolve as the characters move from room to room, and Hume manages to bring out the hidden Happy Days side in some of opera's most popular up-and-comers.
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As Rosina, American mezzo-soprano and former HGO studio artist Joyce DiDonato, with her bobbing blond ponytail and pink poodle skirt, proves to be quite the comedienne while belting out her beautiful arias. Her "Una voce poco fa" is stunning, and she gives strong voice to all of Rosina's songs, whether blending her voice into Rossini's layered group songfests or running through her coloratura repertoire. She's a spunky little Barbie doll with a big voice.
American tenor Richard Croft has returned to Houston to play Count Almaviva; he made his HGO debut in the 2001 production Cosi fan tutte. It's a fun role: He gets to drive on stage in the red convertible, looking every bit the dashing count in dark sunglasses. He also gets to play the really juicy roles of drunken soldier and bizarre substitute music teacher, in a bad wig with Keds showing underneath his cleric's robes. Both his acting and his voice are up to the challenges of these comic scenes.
Rossini's hummable score is played well here by HGO music director Patrick Summers and the HGO Orchestra. American bass-baritone John Del Carlo makes a strong Bartolo, and Russian bass Vladimir Ognovenko a foppish Don Basilio (but with a powerful voice). As Berta, the (old) maid at Rosina's house, American soprano Amy Cofield sounds a bit thin, but she does a charming aria in Act II. And Houston fans will be happy to see local actor William Hardy in the role of the literally silent butler with a few pratfalls of his own.
But it wouldn't be Barber without a good hairdresser, and American baritone Earle Patriarco gives it all he's got. From his strong-throated patter in Act I to his comedic antics in Act II, he's the epitome of the meddling, money-hungry, gossiping hairdresser-to-the-stars we've all come to know and love. The key to putting on a memorable Barber is to have fun with it -- and the HGO cast and crew are clearly having a ball.