Rossini's Wickedly Funny Barber Struggles With Too Many Distractions

David Portillo as Count Almaviva and Lucas Meachem as Figaro.
David Portillo as Count Almaviva and Lucas Meachem as Figaro. Photo by Lynn Lane
There's an opera hidden inside Houston Grand Opera's Resilience Theater at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Can you find it?

It's a masterpiece; that's a certainty. It's also wickedly funny.

Written by opera's buffa genius, Gioacchino Rossini, The Barber of Seville is the finest prosecco: fizzy, flavorful, potent. You can't get enough of its tuneful story, its delicious coloratura, its complex and rhythmic patter songs that get faster, more furious and silly as they proceed. This opera (1816) is madcap and absolute genius. Except here. What's happened?

The Spanish theater collective, El Comediants (what irony in that name!), that's what's happened.

The Barcelona theater troupe, under director Joan Font, has crushed poor Rossini under tons of Euro-trash filler that mocks everything HGO stands for. There's no excuse for this. None. Nada. Ninguna.

I thought I had seen the last of these uncomic Comediants in 2011 when this sorry production premiered. Oh, please, gods of opera, I pleaded at the time, make them go away and never come back. So much for prayers.

Believe it or not, the production has been tweaked since, and a few of its grander excesses have been excised, but the minor tinkering makes no difference and there's no improvement. There are still plenty of distractions to stop our enjoyment and make us sink into our seat hoping this, too, shall pass. Opera should not be wince-inducing.

But what else can you call it when Don Basilio's famed aria about calumny, in which the music master (bass Eric Owens) regales old lecher Bartolo (bass Peixin Chen) about how easy it is to spread fake news and ruin somebody's reputation, is played out center stage in an accompanying dumbshow where one of the “clowns” has his clothes torn off while standing atop a gigantic piano? Or perhaps you're smitten by Rosina's mute duenna who shuffles around the stage during pertinent arias looking for her booze bottle.

Maybe you're mesmerized by the top-knotted house servant who rides a chandelier during Act I's feverish finale or another who gets his top hat blown into a tree. Shouldn't we be focused on the singer and his song instead? The nonsense begins with a colorful bag lady who pulls two candles out of her purse, setting them on the bench, and then proceeds to dine on something she's wrapped in her handkerchief. If there was an overture going on, who heard it? There's no end to the disrespect shown to the mighty Rossini by these fools.

The singers were respectable enough, but their voices faded in and out of the cavernous impromptu theater. Once again, the orchestra is set behind the stage, and even Rossini's famous crescendos, admiringly conducted by maestro Emily Senturia, sounded hazy and far away, meek and mild. Even titanic bass Eric Owens, renowned for his tempestuous Wotan in Wagner's Ring cycle, seemed reined it and muffled. What is it about this space that eats sound with such voracious appetite?

Young tenor David Portillo, as hot-to-trot Count Almaviva, pierced through the gloom with trumpet precision and matinee-idol looks; soprano Sofia Selowsky, as feisty Rosina (one of opera's first strong, independent women) negotiated Rossini's tricky vocal filigree with winning dexterity and personality; and Chen ate up the stage with his hilarious portrait of the cantankerous codger who's misplaced his Viagra.

Baritone Lucas Meachem has wily Figaro down pat. Perhaps too pat, too overplayed. Everything he did had a whiff of been-there-done-that. There wasn't much spontaneity to this jack-of-all-trades who finagles Rosina into Almaviva's arms and gets the goods on ol' Bartolo. He sounded great, though, booming through Resilience's cave and positively rushing through his famous opening aria, “Largo al factotum,” which everybody knows as “Figaro, Figaro, Fi-ga-ro!” Possibly, he was reacting to the awful production he found himself boxed into. Can't blame him for falling back on what he does best in one of his signature roles.

Look, not every night at the opera can be uplifting and glorious. Sometimes it bumps and careens, no matter how exceptional the original material. But a director's vision can do irreparable harm. I have an idea: Ban El Comediants. There could be a hashtag: Make opera grand again. Bring back my Barber!

The Barber of Seville continues at 2 p.m. February 28; 7 p.m. February 3, 8, 10. Houston Grand Opera, Resilience Theater, George R. Brown Convention Center, 1001 Avenidas de las Americas. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit hgo.org. $25-$325.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover