The Barber's New Clothes

In staging Gioacchino Rossini's The Barber of Seville, Houston Ebony Opera Guild abandons European pantaloons and petticoats in favor of a new English-only production that features North African garb and a true Moorish feel.

Rossini's great comic opera -- still familiar from classic Bugs Bunny cartoons -- is a far cry from the ponderous melodrama of Puccini's Tosca, which the company performed last year. Since the African-American company began producing full-fledged opera six years ago, it has generally preferred the serious to the comic.

"In works we've performed in the past, the singers can't get away from just standing and singing," says the show's stage director, Talmage Fauntleroy. But in Barber, the soloists under conductor Willie Anthony Waters will share the spotlight with carefully choreographed ensemble scenes that are rich in interplay.

The plot of Barber has its roots in a buffoonish form of Italian low comedy known as commedia dell'arte. Set in Seville, the story hinges on the exploits of Count Almaviva, who plans to sneak into the household of Dr. Bartolo and capture the heart of Rosina, the doctor's ward. Aided by the conniving Figaro, Almaviva slowly wreaks havoc in the physician's home, first arousing suspicion as a lowly student, and then masquerading as the young girl's music teacher. In the end of course, he wins her hand.

Both Fauntleroy and costume designer Toni Whitaker conceived the show's exotic blend of Moorish and Spanish influences. Gone is the genteel garb of 18th-century aristocrats, replaced with wigs, turbans and African-influenced hairstyles. Rosina's Spanish costume consists of light orange, yellow and black hues underneath a shawl that's more authentic to a sunny desert climate than to Andalusian Spain.

Serious buffs needn't worry that this Barber will tinker unnecessarily with the spirit of the original. Fauntleroy fancies himself a traditionalist and eschews off-the-wall interpretations. With Barber, HEOG is employing a unique style and an all-black cast to create something universal.

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Cynthia Greenwood