The setup: Gunn, Brownlee, Martinez, Rossini. What could go wrong? Director Joan Font, for one, and his Spanish troupe, Els Comediants, for about eight other reasons. The execution: Gioacchino Rossini's sparkling opera buffa masterpiece (1816), astonishingly composed in two weeks, gets buried up to its comic neck in all manner of Euro-trash shtick, no thanks to these fairly unfunny comedians from Barcelona, who smother this work under a worn blanket of left-over Cirque du Soleil. Every nuance in Beaumarchais's classic story, where opportunistic Figaro (Nathan Gunn) plots with Count Almaviva (Lawrence Brownlee) to woo and win the lovely Rosina (Ana Maria Martinez), held virtual prisoner by her greedy guardian Dr. Bartolo (Patrick Carfizzi), gets slathered with subsidiary background action from the commedia dell'arte troupe. They never stop.
While world-renowned baritone Gunn sings Figaro's famous "Largo al factotum" (you know the aria, fast and furious and tongue-tripping: "Figaro, Figaro, Figaro"), a whole stage full of mirror Figaros scurry about to steal the scene; during Don Basilio's famed "Calumny aria," as Rossini whips up a fury in the orchestra while the Don (Kyle Ketelsen), in cahoots with Bartolo, describes how scandal can intensify to humiliating proportions, the dumb show on the other side of the stage has one of the clowns, up on the huge piano/desk/bed combo, getting his clothes ripped off.
Bothersome characters eat dinner in the background; there's a ditzy doña in mantilla always shuffling around on the set's edge; two top-knotted clowns paint the tree seen through the immense picture window for no discernible reason; during the cyclonic end of Act I with its marvelous sextet, one of the pesky mimes gets caught in the chandelier, riding it up and down for the entire scene, completely destroying the mood. It's so damned distracting, it's as if the director, with no faith in the material, feels he has to jazz up the action to keep our interest. It's insulting to Rossini. With an inspirational nod to artist Joan Miró, the colorful sets and costumes by Joan Guillén brighten the entire mood considerably.
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Thankfully, what saves the day is the buoyant singing and free-form performances from the entire ensemble. Powerhouse Gunn must have had a bad night of it vocally, for he faded into the background after his "Largo." Usually, his burly baritone carries easily over the footlights, no matter what size the house, but his formidable talents remained somewhat muffled opening night. He's still the smoothest of actors, though, with charisma for days.
As spunky heroine Rosina, Martinez thoroughly captivated as she breezed through Rossini's treacherous coloratura. She's a natural in this type of role, and she sparkled with feisty charm. Young bass-baritone Carfizzi, as grumpy old Bartolo, romped through his intricate patter songs with a finesse bordering on radiance. And there's no better Rossini tenor today than Brownlee. The musical filigree that Almaviva has to maneuver through is so difficult to bring off without sounding winded that HGO added his final aria to "happy marriage" that's usually cut in performance because nobody else but Brownlee can sing it. He sailed through it with sweet, powerful joy.
The verdict: Sometimes it's best at the opera to squint a little to catch a quick overview of the visually arresting sets and costumes, and then shut your eyes and just listen.
Rossini's rambunctious opera romps through October 23 (matinee), October 29, November 4 and November 6 (matinee) at Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Center, 501 Texas. For tickets go to houstongrandopera.org or call 713-228-6737.